The notion of two bona fide guitar heroes joining forces for their first ever album is enough to enrapture any musical connoisseur, let alone send shockwaves throughout the guitar fraternity. The brand new record from critically acclaimed guitarists Eric Johnson and Mike Stern is witness to a scintillating musical showcase demonstrating their musical prowess, disparate styles and idiosyncrasies that inevitably make it a must-buy for guitarists and music lovers everywhere.
The project arose soon after Johnson appeared on a handful of tracks for Stern’s 2009 release of Big Neighbourhood. Stern said in an interview with GuitarWorld, “I’ve known Eric for years and always dug his playing. Every time I saw him, I’d tell him that it would be great for us to do something together. Finally, I was doing this record called ‘Big Neighborhood’ and had the idea of doing something with him”. To which Johnson replied, “We had so much fun working on that record that one day the Blue Note Club in New York called and asked us if we’d like to do a joint gig together. So we put together a band, rehearsed and learned music. We ended up doing a two-week tour out of that and got offered to do a record and a few other tours that are now slated to happen”.
It was during the collaboration on Big Neighbourhood, that the two guitarists discovered a shared affinity for Blues and Jazz; the governing principle for the brand new album, these genres interspersed with Rhythm and Blues and Funk exhibits the beginnings of Eclectic. Needless to say, the pair thereafter decided that it was only natural for them to head to the recording studio with the inclination of releasing a full album together. Eclectic was officially released on the 27th of October 2014 via Heads Up International and recorded in Johnson’s private home studio in Austin, Texas.
Johnson and Stern were accompanied by a troupe of virtuoso musicians that include drummer Anton Fig, bassist Chris Maresh, vocalists Malford Milligan, Leni Stern, Christopher Cross, harpist Guy Forsyth, saxophonist John Mills, trombonist Mike Mordecai and trumpeter Andrew Johnson. There is an abundance of versatility in every track, consisting of Blues/Jazz improvisations, new-age fusion shuffles, fret-board wizardry and Big Band-esque themes strewn throughout with both guitarists expertly playing alongside one another without seeming to ‘compete’ against one another.
“Roll With It”:
Guitar aficionados will certainly be pleased with the exchange and flurry of intricate guitar licks on tracks such as “Roll With It“, a high-octane funk tune featuring a singing debut from Stern who surprisingly has a rather good singing voice. Other highlights include Stern’s soul-stirring “Wishing Well“, “Remember“, a vibrant modal bout which seems to be based upon John Coltrane’s piece “Impressions” interspersed with some connotations to Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone From The Sun”, but that is not the only record in which a guitar heroes hero is being identified, Johnson’s infectious tune “Tidal” which is a dedication to Wes Montgomery, sees both guitarists show their sensitivity to Wes’ unique execution to Jazz.
Johnson states, “that song is an homage to Wes (Montgomery). I actually wrote that song earlier and put it on iTunes. I brought it into our rehearsals and we started re-arranging it. I actually like it a lot better the way it is now. It’s a pretty cool thing”. Also, the stupendous “Hullabaloo” features on the album, of which Johnson exclaims, “it has a crazy rock/swinging Sixties vibe to it. It started off with a show review-type of riff and then evolved from there”. The song has an almost Pop/Jazz vibe to it which is fitting in many ways to a follow from the stunning platinum selling Ah Via Musicom (1990). “Benny Man Blues” is another compelling tune that suggests stylistic influences from Benny Goodman and Charlie Christian. It sees Johnson reverting back to pre-war influences (Charlie Christian), whereas Stern takes a more modern approach with both exquisitely improvising with its vibe instated into Jazzy bluegrass – a perfect blend for the rest of the record.
The grand finale of the album sees the two virtuosos take on Jimi Hendrix’s iconic hit “Red House” with reverence, they create a late night Jazz feel on what is essentially a Bluesy/Rock record. This record in particular gives the impression that you are hearing a live concert with copious amounts of fret-board extravaganza. Sterns sums up the project by proclaiming, “this whole record, even though we did it in the studio, was really recorded live. A couple of things were fixed but there was that spontaneous quality which is what we were looking for and I definitely think that’s what we got. I really dig the way this record came out. It has a lot of energy and a lot of musicality”.It’s the spectacle and music that enraptures you, not only the words.
This is a record that should tweak your curiosity even if you are not a guitar aficionado, especially if you are interested in Blues, Jazz, Fusion or Rock. There is a wide array of musical prowess on show throughout the album, which can be extremely beneficial from a musicianship perspective, but also for the pure enjoyment of harmonically stimulating music. It is a Blues/Jazz record like no other, from two of the most esteemed guitarists of their generation.
Purchase: Eric Johnson & Mike Stern – Eclectic (iTunes)
Words by Alex Clarke // Edited by Ayo Adepoju