Some artists grow in leaps and bounds; others evolve gradually, introducing new players and textures to broaden their palette and keep things interesting. Stern falls firmly into the second category; sometimes the material from one album to the next shows only limited growth, but by examining his entire recorded career it is clear that Stern has evolved significantly as both a player and a writer.
Picking up where 2001’s Voices left off, Stern continues to use some of the same cast of characters, in particular Richard Bona and Elizabeth Kontomanou, whose vocals are heard on half of the tracks. Stern also brings in Béla Fleck on "I Know You", the first of more planned collaborations with the banjo virtuoso. Another newcomer to the growing list of players Stern calls upon is saxophonist Kenny Garrett, who shares a common lineage, albeit at different times, with Miles Davis’ bands from the 1980’s. Stern had wanted to play with Garrett, being attracted to "a vocal quality in his playing, which is also something Miles had."
Stern has said that one of the goals of These Times was to balance the production values of a studio recording with the energy and vitality of live performance; considering the power of his previous recordings, this does not seem like such a new goal for him, but here he succeeds even more than on his earlier work. Tracks like the opening "Chatter," the African/Zawinul-informed "Silver Lining," and the funky closer, "Last One Down," where guest bassist Victor Wooten lays down a nimble groove, all bristle with excitement. The modal "Remember," dedicated to the late saxophonist Bob Berg with whom Stern co-led a band for some years, burns as Stern delivers arguably his hottest solo on the album.
"Mirage", a showcase for Kontomanou’s vocals and Tuncboyaciyan’s percussion, continues with the world-beat influence that Stern first introduced on Voices; Will Lee’s bass brings to mind some of the reggae-influence of Sting’s work with The Police.
But while Stern is often thought of in terms of high-energy playing, he has always been able to deliver poignant ballads and slow, deep grooves as well. On the moving "If Only", Bona sings about a childhood experience that remains with him to this day. On "Avenue B" Lee and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta lay down a slow blues groove that provides the perfect vehicle for Stern and Garrett to trade ideas; Garrett even throws down a quote from Miles’ "Jean-Pierre", a staple from the repertoire of both Stern’s and Garrett’s times with the musical icon.
By examining the arc of his entire career, from his early days with Miles to his latest recording, one can see that Stern’s "heavy metal bebop" playing of old has evolved into something that, while retaining the essence of rock, is far more harmonically advanced. Like many of his contemporaries, his writing is becoming more extended; less of the theme-solo-theme format of his earlier writing, and more of a sense of composition. These Times is a significant new recording from Stern; one that shows an artist firmly dedicated to constant evolution.