Keyboard Wizard Jeff Lorber & Guitar Great Mike Stern Collaborate On “Eleven” (ALBUM REVIEW)

The presence of keyboardist Jeff Lorber, makes many, including this writer, a bit wary of a smooth jazz offering. Even after the first couple of tracks that wariness remains but soon dissolves away due to the edgy playing of mostly guitarist Mike Stern who sets a fiery direction that Lorber follows and, at times, flourishes. The collaboration between these two talented instrumentalists was a long time in coming. The two have known each other from afar since the ‘80s when Jeff Lorber Fusion would open for Miles Davis when Stern was Miles’ guitarist. Lorber, of course, staked out a career, even though he’s a bit reluctant himself to use the term, in radio-friendly smooth jazz where he won Grammys in 2017 and 2018. Stern went on to play with Jaco Pastorium, Joe Henderson, Michael Brecker, The Brecker Brothers, Vital Information, and Steps Ahead while also leading his own bands through 18 albums. Credit bassist- producer Jimmy Haslip for bringing the two together from opposite sides of the country and not quite opposite styles. There are ten tracks on this album, entitled Eleven.

The title is a joking reference to This Is Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel, who  demonstrates in the 1984 movie how his amplifier has a knob that goes to eleven …for when you need that extra push over the cliff.” Commenting on the collaboration, Lorber indicates it moved him away from “what some people call ‘smooth jazz,’ which is a moniker that I don’t really love.” He recognizes Stern as having terrific jazz phrasing and feeling while knowing a thing or two about blues and rock too. Stern, for his part, added that Lorber has a strong rhythmic groove and comps and plays beautifully on acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes and organ. He likens Lorber’s style more toward Philly soul than smooth jazz. So, enough for now on smooth jazz. Let’s get to the music which features plenty of soloing and harmonics.

First, most songs are rendered in a quartet with Haslip (charter member of Yellow Jackets0 on bass and three different drummers: Gary Novak (five tracks), Dave Weckl (four tracks) and Vinnie Colaiuta (two tracks). Both Colaiuta and Novak appear on the opening “Righteous.”  Dave Mann adds horn arrangements to six tracks with Rob Franceschini adding additional saxophones to “Ha Ha Hotel.” There are a couple of vocal spots too. 

”Righteous” is a Lorber composition, flowing in radio-friendly style (hint; the two words we are not supposed to mention) in modal form, melodic and rhythmic. Stern enters with his warm sound at the 2I/2 minute mark with Novak and Colaiuta driving the beat. Stern’s prominent guitar carries his tune “Nu Som,” written for Will Lee’s wife, Sandrine Lee who is known by artist name for her photography. Stern’s wife, Leni, plays an African N’goni on the track. “Jones Street,” which showcases Stern’s blues and jazz side. This is a more up-tempo version for the tune that Stern recorded on his 1997 Give and Take. It has the spark of a live recording and will likely be a lengthy jam when performed in concert. Lorber shows his organ chops and Weckl is ever steady on the traps.

”Motor City” is a funky Lorber piece that’s 15 years old. Here he handles the bass and guitar in addition to keyboards. He takes an acoustic piano solo and spices the mix with old Yamaha DX7 synthesizer sounds which he used when he first recorded it. Stern’s solo soars toward the end of the piece. The swaggering “Big Town” is a co-write between Lorber and Haslip, where the latter curiously lays out, relinquishing bass duties again to Lorber. “Slow Change” by Stern has a heavy blues rock flavor. It’s dark and ominous-sounding, .much of his playing improvised, it first appeared on his 2001 Voices with vocals from Elisabeth Kontomanou. Stern’s guitar absolutely wails, gives way to  Lorber’s Fender Rhodes and explosive organ, until Stern rejoins in the album’s longest track at almost nine minutes.

”Tell Me,” another Stern piece is a ballad played in trio format with Novak on drums. It first appeared on Stern’s 1996 Between the Lines with a sax carrying the melody that Stern handles here. Apparently, he asked Lorber to play in a Bruce Hornsby style which you’ll hear in support of Stern’s gorgeously toned guitar. “Ha Ha Hotel” originally dates to Stern’s  1994 Is What It Is and is a funky, bluesy piece with Lorber on organ and augmented by Bob Franceshini’s octave effect on his saxophone. The rhythm section of Haslip and Weckl do a fine job handling the start-stop changes, especially at the outset of the piece before Stern goes into orbit.

The driving Lorber-Haslip “Rhumba Pagan,” fueled by Colaiuta’s drumming,  is pure combustion and features a choir of wordless vocals from Stern, Haslip and Chelsea Maull. The intricate 6/8 “Runner” from Lorber closes the album as he solos on a few different keyboards and Stern again fires up. The joy in playing together is palpable. At times, this album absolutely cooks. Did anyone ever say that about smooth jazz?

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3 Responses

  1. Mike stern and Jeff lorber are two of my favorite musicians. I was hoping for original compositions on this recording but they performed songs we have already heard. Prototype from Jeff lorber was a masterpiece. Mike sterns trip recording was a masterpiece. I was a little disapointed from the absence of more new songs. This current cd is great but next time focus more on new original compositions. May your music careers stay strong. We need your music. Thanks. Irving Keyes.

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