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Spotlights [Issue # 24 ]
Mike Stern: Letting The Cats Out

By Dean Truitt

Mike Stern must not be very superstitious because his 13th studio release as a leader, Who Let the Cats Out, shows a black cat glowering in the foreground of its cover.

Yet, the album, if not the finest of his career, ranks favorably among his strongest works to date. From the percolating groove of the opening, “Tumble Home,” to the sultry swagger of “KT,” and the playful homage to his wife, “Leni Goes Shopping,” each track swings or stings with passionate performances. It seems as though Stern can slay any lingering doubts about his ability (should any still exist) with his signature Yamaha Pacifica, six strings, and an amp. Assessing the outcome of his new record, Stern admits, “I’m really happy with the way Who Let the Cats Out turned out. It’s real loose and I feel like it’s got a lot of variety, but it seems like it really holds together. I love all the tunes and I play a lot on it. For better or worse, that makes it hang together (laughs).”

The triumph of Who Lets the Cats Out, which holds true for most of Stern’s albums, is that he allows each player to leave his or her indelible fingerprints on the recording. Perhaps because he is such a masterful musician, the guitarist strives to seek top tier performers and assemble them in a way that will yield outstanding sonic chemistry. Seemingly amazed by his good fortune to work alongside such a stellar cast of musicians, the virtuoso beams, “I kind of wanted to do a record with some people that I hadn’t played with before and then some that I had been playing with some. There are a bunch of people, it’s kind of an adventurous project to put together. Kim Thompson is a new name and a great drummer that played on this record, but she’d been touring with me. I loved the opportunity to play with Roy Hargrove [trumpet] and Me’Shell NdegeOcello [bass] because they’re really incredible musicians who I really dig. I think everybody played their asses off: Richard Bona [bass and some vocals], Dave Weckl [drums], Gregoire Maret [harmonica], I hadn’t played with that regularly either. Victor Wooten [bass], of course, always plays great.”

Stern’s inspiring performances and compositions seem effortless, but the man with countless “best guitarist” awards speaks openly that he works assiduously to improve both onstage and in the studio. Throughout the writing and recording of his latest album, Stern recounts honing his craft. He acknowledges, “It takes me a while to write now, especially since I’ve written a bunch of tunes on all my records and some other tunes on other people’s records. After a while, you just kind of want to get some different stuff happening. You want to try not to rewrite a tune that you’ve written, but I think it’s also alright just to let go and be who you are. You don’t want to second-guess yourself just to be different for different’s sake.”

Unlike many other guitar heroes, he finds satisfaction in composing memorable songs, rather than simply churning out vehicles for endless soloing. With melodic lyricism and an uncanny ability to shift from fragile sensitivity to full-throttle aggressive passages, Stern plays for the song and encouragers his collaborators to follow suit. He explains, “I’m always looking in both ways, as a player and as a writer, for new stuff so I can grow and check out different chord change, a different arrangement, a different little melodic turn, or something like that. Lately, I’ve been trying to write more in new ways. It’s harder to write simpler, but I’m trying to so I can actually do some of that stuff with quartet, not even with a keyboard. Just with saxophone, guitar, bass, and drums. Even without singing, all those tunes will work live in some capacity really stripped down.”

Despite having played with legends from Miles Davis to Jaco Pastorius, Mike Stern shows appreciation for the simple pleasure of playing guitar for a living. Any additional accolades are gravy for him. Almost as an afterthought, he remembers, “It’s [Who Let the Cats Out] nominated for a Grammy, which is nice too. I’ve been nominated four times now for different projects. It’d be nice to win won, but just to be nominated, just to be able to do a record in the first place, and to have my own band to be able to take out on the road with me, I’m very grateful for all that. All that stuff is just amazing to me. That’ll never get old for me. I feel very privileged to be able to do that and make it work.”

Who Let The Cats Out?
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Letting The Cats Out Mike Stern Who Let The Cats Out?

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