Big Neighborhood (Heads Up Records)

Mike Stern

Released August 11, 2009

Grammy Nominee for Best ContemporaryJazz Instrumental Album 2010




Five-time Grammy nominated guitarist Mike Stern’s music has always come from a colorful and diverse part of town – a place where numerous artistic styles converge to create a fresh sound that’s rooted in jazz but refuses to adhere to rigid borders. Since his earliest recordings, this former bandmate of Miles Davis, Jaco Pastorius, Billy Cobham and other high-profile innovators has grafted elements of rock, blues, soul and more to his solid jazz foundations. On Stern’s street, anybody who brings a sense of energy, eclecticism and passion to the craft of music is welcome to play.

Stern invites fans and newcomers alike into his rich and diverse little corner of the world with the worldwide release of Big Neighborhood (HUCD 3157) on Heads Up International, a division of Concord Music Group. Aiding Stern in this latest chapter of his never-ending quest for the new and better groove is a long list of talented guests: guitarists Steve Vai and Eric Johnson; bassist-vocalists Esperanza Spalding and Richard Bona; jamband godfathers Medeski Martin & Wood; drummers Dave Weckl, Terri Lyne Carrington, Cindy Blackman and Lionel Cordew; bassists Chris Minh Doky and Lincoln Goines, and several others.

With a crew this large and diverse, the idea of the album title should be pretty clear, says Stern. “Music is like a big neighborhood – a place where anything and everything can happen,” he explains. “You can find all kinds of things in a big neighborhood – all kinds of different people, all kinds of different ideas and perspectives, and of course, all kinds of different sounds.”

With all of this going on in a single recording, Stern’s primary objective was to capture the energy as live as possible, with few if any overdubs. This was no easy task, as a few of the artists had schedules that prohibited meeting in a central location. Consequently, while Stern was able to record a good part of the album in his hometown of New York City, he had to travel (with rhythm section) to Austin, Texas to record with Eric Johnson, and then to Los Angeles to record with Steve Vai and Dave Weckl. In the end, the album’s eleven tracks came together in a neighborhood that spans two coasts with a stop in the Lone Star State.

“This record is in a lot of places – not just in terms of where it was recorded, but in the various voices and styles that are represented,” says Stern. “There’s jazz here, there’s rock, there’s Latin, there are elements of Middle Eastern music. I dig records like that. Basically, I guess the thread that hopefully holds all this together is the fact that I wrote all the tunes on this project, I play on all of them, and the concept of how all this fits together is mine with some great help from the guy that produced the record, Jim Beard. I hear it when I’m writing. I’ll think, ‘This song has kind of an African groove, so I should get Richard Bona to play on it,’ or ‘This song has a melodic groove, which is perfect for Esperanza.’ I just follow my instincts and pick the tunes that will all work together on one record, and will show off what each person can do.” Mike Stern’s Big Neighborhood is an open community where everyone is welcome. Everyone has something worthwhile to say, and everyone is given plenty of room to say it. “The thing that really gets me going is listening to all these very different artists on this record interpret my songs,” says Stern. “In the end, everything is unified by the mere fact that there’s a lot of spirit and a lot of fun in the music. That’s really the common thread. There’s just that vibe that emerges when good musicians play their hearts out. Nothing else really matters as far as I’m concerned…I think anyone who likes any of these artists will really dig what they did on this record.”

Track Listing:

1. Big Neighborhood (Mike Stern) 7:40

2. 6th Street (Mike Stern) 7:49

3. Reach (Mike Stern) 5:30

4. Song For Pepper (Mike Stern) 5:43

5. Coupe De Ville (Mike Stern) 4:36

6. Bird Blue (Mike Stern) 5:44

7. Moroccan Roll (Mike Stern) 7:06

8. Long Time Gone (Mike Stern) 7:52

9. Check One (Mike Stern) 7:39

10. That’s All It Is (Mike Stern) 4:52

11. Hope You Don’t Mind (Mike Stern) 5:18


Mike Stern: guitar

Jim Beard: piano, keyboards, organ (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 11)

Steve Vai: sitar guitar (7, 8)

Eric Johnson: guitar (2, 8)

Esperanza Spalding: bass and vocals (4, 5, 6)

Richard Bona: bass and vocals (3)

Randy Brecker: trumpet (11)

John Medeski: organ, clavinet (9, 10); drums (10)

Cindy Blackman: drums (11)

Terry Lyne Carrington: drums (4, 5, 6, 11)

Lionel Cordew: drums (2, 8)

Chris Minh Doky: bass (11)

Bob Franceschini: saxophone (3)

Lincoln Goines: bass (1, 2, 7, 8)

Bob Malach: saxophone (5, 9, 10)

Dave Weckl: drums (1, 3, 7)

Billy Martin: drums (9)

Chris Wood: bass; electric (9), acoustic (10)

Recorded at Skyline Studios, NYC; Church House Studios, Austin; Sage and Sound Recording, Los Angeles; Avatar Studios, NYC; B&C Studios, New York, NY; Silvermine Studios, Norwalk, CT 

Producer: Jim Beard

Mastered by Greg Calbi

Mixed by Phil Magnotti

Photography by Clay Patrick McBride


Mike Stern has very few peers among modern musicians in general, and electric guitarists in particular, especially onstage. He’s democratic on his new Big Neighborhood CD, which features appearances by a handful of the musicians in his league, including guest guitarists. Yet it’s a studio effort, even while featuring some of the same personnel (saxophonist Bob Franceschini, drummer Dave Weckl) that helped fuel Stern’s last piece of product, the 2008 live DVD New Morning: The Paris Concert.
As with most of Stern’s studio discs, Big Neighborhood simply lacks the unbridled improvisation and interplay of his stage shows. The guests are also so numerous that things feel contrived. The opening title track is essentially a mid-tempo instrumental rocker that finally peaks near its coda through the dueling guitar solos of Stern and Steve Vai. “6th Street” features guitarist Eric Johnson, whose interplay with Stern and organist Jim Beard makes the atmospheric track a highlight. Then comes the chanted vocal portion of the CD on the next four tracks-one with bassist/vocalist Richard Bona, three with singer and bassist Esperanza Spalding. All have their moments, but perhaps could have been placed non-sequentially.
“Moroccan Roll,” a Middle Eastern-tinged piece featuring Vai (on sitar guitar), Weckl, Beard and bassist Lincoln Goines, re-energizes the proceedings. Then keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood, best known for the trio bearing their three last names, guest on the disc’s banner track. The free-form funk of “Check One,” which also features saxophonist Bob Malach, bears similarities to MMW’s two recordings with the guitarist who replaced Stern in Miles Davis’ band, John Scofield. Perhaps with better sequencing and a solid band, Big Neighborhood (which was recorded in Los Angeles, Austin and New York City depending on the guest personnel) might not seem so all over the place.

Bill Meredith (JazzTimes)