From the dawn of his prolific career, guitarist Mike Stern has been content to be the small name on the marquee and the big presence in the guitar slot — from his first gig in the mid-'70s with Blood Sweat & Tears to high-profile stints with Billy Cobham, Miles Davis, Jaco Pastorius and the Brecker Brothers. In his storied solo career, Stern has had little difficulty generating considerable acclaim, racking up five Grammy nominations and accolades, including Best Jazz Guitarist of 1993 from Guitar Player readers and critics, the 2007 Miles Davis Award from the Montreal International Jazz Festival honoring his body of work and being named one of DownBeat Magazine's 75 Great Guitarists on a list of players dating back to the '20s.
On Stern's latest, Big Neighborhood, the astonishing guitarist continues to explore jazz, rock, blues and soul with thunderous power, intuitive brilliance and inventive fluidity. Stern is a masterful stylist, shifting effortlessly from the purer jazz forms of "Coupe de Ville" and "Bird Blue" to the frenetic rock pace of the title track and the blistering Middle Eastern jazz/rock fusion of "Moroccan Roll" (both featuring able assistance from Steve Vai). On the funk/groove workouts "Check One" and "That's All It Is," Medeski, Martin and Wood give Stern's slinky intricacy a sinewy foundation. Some purists might take issue with Stern for not picking a side, but confining a guitarist with his skill set to a single genre would be like giving the wind a zip code. — Brian Baker