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Interviews

Mike Stern: Playing by Heart

By Published: March 19, 2004
A little history: Mike Stern was the controversial guitarist that accompanied Miles Davis on Saturday Night Live in 1981 as he made his historic and unexpected return to the world stage and studio after a seven year hiatus; both taking critial heat for the music's rock edge. Miles' now famous directions to his new guitarist, "Turn it up, or turn it off" underscored his Hendrixian affinity and always forward thought. Stern was later called to join legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius when forming his "Word of Mouth" sextet. Among stints with Mike Maineri's Steps Ahead, Mike Brecker, The Brecker Brothers, Billy Cobham, BST and Joe Henderson, Stern has to date released 11 solo albums, garnered three Grammy nominations, and numerous Best Guitar Player wins, where he brings his unique mixture of swing feel, sophisticated harmonic sense, post bop linear expressions and relentless blues/rock attitude to his own groups.

Influenced by guitarists from Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall to Hendrix and Clapton, as well as, 'Trane and McCoy Tyner, Stern blends harmonic intellect and a warm, brilliant tone with the soulful edge of rock, blues and funk seamlessly; effortlessly. And he always seems to have a blast doing it, as consequently do his audiences.

Whether as sideman for Miles, Brecker, Jaco, Cobham, Blood, Sweat & Tears or collaborating with Bob Berg, Jim Hall, Pat Martino, John Scofeld, Bill Frisell or George Coleman, Stern has made an indelible mark on the current sonic soundscape, influencing thousands of guitarists trying to emulate the elusive tone, the phrasing, the linear development, the voicings, the vibe, the music itself. All unique components of Stern's instantly recognizable sound.

With the Grammy-nominated Voices , his tenth and final album for Atlantic, Stern expanded on his instrumental oeuvre by breaking from the traditional territory of that idiom with the addition of bassist/vocalist Richard Bona (currently with Pat Metheny), Philip Hamilton and others along with the always stellar rhythm sections of Dennis Chambers, Lincoln Goines and Vinnie Coliauta (w/ Sting). Mike Brecker guests on tenor sax.

Stern's latest release, These Times , continues this focus on the added texture of vocals as an instrument and seems an appropriate title not only for Stern's latest release and move to new label, (ESC/Germany), but also for the current zeitgeist. Just that sense of 'what's up' or what's next, people seem to currently be asking of each other and the world around them. Joined by a who's who of world's musical talent pool, Stern embarks on his second vocal excursion and the latest phase of his extensive and varied career.

It's early January during one of the coldest winters in recent years and Stern was home in New York on a break between tours when this was done.

All About Jazz: So how are you liking that heat wave up there?

Mike Stern: Yeah, its great. For instance today its going to be better. Its up to a big, balmy 30 degrees.

AAJ: So you just got off tour.

MS: Well, that was awhile ago, I've been home playing around New York for about a month now.I'm going to be playing at the Iridium January 27th for a week, in New York. You know the club? 51st and Broadway or something like that. Its with Dave Weckl, Richard Bona and Bob Francescini, on the new CD. That's the quartet for these gigs coming up in the states and Then we're going to Japan. Victor Wooten is doing a couple of dates, too, coming up in San Francsico, and a week in Yoshi's in Seattle, also. Then we're going to Washington and Boston.

AAJ: How does that change when you go from one player to another?

MS: Well, I do that all the time with different cats, you know, there are a few that are just bad motherfuckers. They put their own thing on the music and so it's really fun. I mean I just really feel honored that they want to do gigs with me. I feel, they're really great players and its flattering to be able to get those cats to play, to do gigs with you. Playing with Weckl's going to be great, too. He's on an earlier record on mine called 'Between the Lines'. We played a lot together so I'm looking forward to playing with him. I wanted him actually to be on this record also ('These Times'). I wanted Vinnie (Coliauta), Dave and Dennis (Chambers) but you can't get everybody. It's just impossible with the scheduling and everything and budget and everything.

AAJ: Yeah. So, Richard's been doing all the vocals on tour?

MS: Well, there's not many vocals on tour, it's much more live instrumental. He does a couple of tunes when we tour. We haven't done that much touring. We just did some gigs, sometimes unadvertised, at the 55 Bar, just kind of jamming and he does some of the vocals, and then we did a gig at the Iridium last year when Voices was out (which Bona guests on vocals, bass and Kalimba) we did a couple of the tunes and he sang a couple of them - just quartet ' so it doesn't sound produced, its just one voice. It's not layered voices or anything.

AAJ: So how set are set lists, or is it pretty much open?

MS: Its pretty open. I like to have a set that kind of works, but the tunes are all open. We really play them and stretch them live, so you hear Victor ' both of them ' play a lot. Richard and Victor get to play a lot and Bob Franceschini, of course, Weckl will get a chance to play a lot. And Richard Bona: he's done some gigs on is own and he's done gigs with Bobby McFerrin, with Pat Metheny, but he doesn't stretch on the bass as much as he does on my gig. He plays a lot. I want him to play a lot, He plays the shit out of the bass. He's got a great vibe, too. It's sure kickin' my ass. The two of those guys inspire me.

AAJ: You keep writing tunes on tour?

MS: I try to. It's always a challenge to keep writing tunes. And of course, it's the best thing. Whatever's the hardest thing usually is the stuff you get the most out of (laughs). And so generally I just try to write and lately I've been in a kind of practice mode. And usually what I do practice wise is a lot of playing with a bassist to try out different stuff. But I do a lot of transcribing - horn players, especially. I've always been trying to get a horn-like sound on the guitar - singing kind of sound ' even when I'm playing lines. You know, make it sound kind of airy. I use a stereo sound (Stern's gear list is below). Part of the reason is for that kind of airier sound, like a horn; more vocal, and I'm way into horn players. That's what I listen to a lot and try to get: some of those ideas on the guitar. And piano players, not so much directly from other guitars, although, of course, I love hearing other great players. There's tons of them out there, young cats and older cats and in between, and so I check out everybody. But I've been definitely focusing on other instruments, especially tenor saxophone, for the ideas and for the kind of phrasing I want to go for.

AAJ: How do you develop your voicings; how have you developed those?

MS: I guess just by listening to piano. Sometimes you can't play all the notes 'cause they can double and stuff, but you try to get some of those voicings on the guitar. And some voicings are just like you get tendonitis every time you try to play them. I try to make them more interesting without killing myself, so a lot of times they're just two-note voicings. All you need is two notes to have a chord.

AAJ: Yeah, the guidetones (3rd and 7th degrees of a chord).

MS: Yeah, guidetones or just a tension (b9, #9, #11 or #5) and a guidetone or something like that. And it's interesting that an interval can kind of sound (fuller) ' even a major 7th or a D minor 7th,. For instance, if you just use F and E and have that F in the bottom and the E in the top and the bassist is hopefully playing some kind of a root of a D, then you get ' its almost like an 'out' sound, but really its just a'

AAJ: D minor 9th.

MS: Yeah. It's the interval (itself) that causes the dissonance; the major 7. So you get kind of a cool thing.

AAJ: It kind of grabs your interest (due to its tension) and people psychologically fill in the rest of the notes in their mind.

MS: Yeah! You can hear it, I mean, right away. A lot of the harmony of a lot of Bach stuff is more inside sounding, by our standards today, of course. A lot of that stuff that he wrote for violin is just single notes, but there's tons of harmony implied.

AAJ: Right, even as many as three lines or levels. You still work on that stuff, a lot.

MS: I do. I try to. That's one of the things I also practice besides transcribing a lot, I try to do some Bach, and just learn some of those pieces. Actually, Bela Fleck, who's on this record; I've been checking him out; some of those Flecktone records and the thing he does on the live record with a Bach Sonata #3 or Partitia #3 and he kills it, man. He plays it fast. That's hard.

AAJ: That was really inspired that you used him. Will you use him again on another recording?

MS: I'd love to use him on more where we actually get to play. We had some fun just sitting around while I was showing him - trying to figure out: use this for this. Because I had this vague idea for this banjo part - which is not the first thing that comes to my mind, 'cause I'm not from that school. But since I heard him, you think: that would be kind of a cool part, on banjo. And he played it perfectly, right away; got the vibe right away, and then he said, 'Or do you want it like this, or this or this or this?'. He had a billion different possibilities. And then we just played like a Blues and it was fun as shit, so I would love to do some stuff with him, more of like a couple of standards on a record where we really get to stretch. He's really a fantastic musician.

AAJ: That'd be great. You know I didn't realize until I talked to him, that he's from New York, so that kind of explained a lot.

MS: Exactly. Yeah. He's a bad cat, man. He's really something special. Very. And it was beautiful that he did this thing for me. I was really thrilled and he really did it as a favor. I mean, he just came in and did it. He was just in town and he said, 'Sure!', you know? Really great cat.

AAJ: I'm hoping a lot of really great players will use him and his name will just spread.

MS: Well, it already has. He sells more records than anybody I know, to tell you the truth, in jazz, or whatever. He's got a huge following. He's got the hippy kind of (following)'

AAJ: Like the jam band thing.

MS: Yeah. I played with them at the Gavin convention one time with me and Bob Berg - ten years ago, when they were just starting ' and when I heard them, right away I said, 'That is some cool shit'. It's just different! It's entertaining and he's gonna grab some people, but I dug it right away. Some people - more jazz purists - they said, 'Banjo, what the hell's that?' And I went like''Shhh', 'cause, you know me, I like all kinds of shit. I don't just limit myself to this kind of music or that kind of music. Whatever gets your heart, and right away there was something about it that just got my heart, right away. I stayed, like, a bunch of tunes and I was fried. We got in that day and we played our little set and then they played and I still hung out for a while.

AAJ: I think it's a real inspired use of that texture.

MS: It was incredible. And then the whole thing they got going on is beautiful. More power to them.

AAJ: Have you heard that new triple disc ( Little Worlds )?

MS: I haven't heard that one. I know Bela was telling me they had so much music they didn't know what to do, they finally put out three in one.

AAJ: Yeah, it was only supposed to be one disc. You mentioned Bob. I was really sorry to hear about that.

MS: Yeah, Berg, man. The tune on the CD is for him. ('Remember'). It's for him because that's the kind of tune he would've tore up. I wanted to write one of the ballads for him, I mean, certainly he was, kind of, in my heart when I was writing a couple of those things but that tune just felt like, it kind of more celebrates his life and the kind of energy he had and it was very tragic and sudden.

AAJ: Just unbelievable.

MS: Yeah, it's unbelievable. But it's real. I mean, we hear about it all the time and then when it happens so close to your heart it's something that kind of makes you'take stock and appreciate every moment, if you can, without being naive. I mean, some moments you'd rather not live through. Some shit we all have to deal with. But certainly it was just really sad that he's gone. It's amazing when you lose somebody and you're that close to them, They're just in your heart forever.

AAJ: He had an incredible spirit.

MS: Definitely. And he left some great music. I was transcribing some of his stuff the other day. It was killing - on the 'Standards' record.

AAJ: Yeah. That's a great album

MS: It's a beautiful record, man. I was really honored to be asked to be on it. He kind of asked me at the last minute. He said, 'Man, I got a tune for you on this'. I'm like, 'Cool'. It's the only original one on the record. But he burns it. Gary Novak and Ed Howard (Berg's rhythm section); they have such a beautiful hookup together.

AAJ: That was a great band. Are you close to his family at all or do you stay in touch?

MS: Yeah, definitely, with Aria, his wife, I talk to a lot. I'm trying to make sure I stay connected. So that was cool to do and I was also playing with Victor and Dennis ' had the gig - and kind of at the last minute they were both in town and I said I'd love to get Victor on this record on a couple of things, so that was one of them and it kind of felt right in a certain way because Victor; I was doing a gig with him in LA ' he never played with Bob, he always dug him. But when I got the news, Peter Erskine called me about Berg and I was in LA at the hotel where they put you up for Catalina. So he called me there, and gave me the news. I was glad it was Erskine 'cause he's a close friend. And I was just really kind of devastated and Victor was just Victor. He's a very spiritual cat and he was on the gig that whole week, so just by being him, it helped me through. So it was kind of appropriate in a way, for me, that even though he's never played with Bob Berg there was some connection there for me. He was on the record on that tune so that still very much felt right and also logistically right, because we were going to do a gig the next day at the Bottom Line.

But I was so happy with the way that came out. You know, after you write the tunes for the record and then you play your on own stuff on it - and you're always trying to do some different stuff and get some slightly different sounds. I like to keep my own voice, I don't like to just play different for different sake. I certainly just always want to try to get different phrases and different stuff happening and just different vibes, from record to record, and have some continuity between records, also. That's what I'm shooting for. But the thing that excites me the most is when people play their asses off on it, 'cause then they're playing your music and you look over and some guy's like killing! (laughs). And that happened everywhere on this whole record with everybody. And it's just beautiful energy. And it feels like an honor to hear that kind of stuff. It's beautiful. You can't force that. You've got to be into the music. So it was big fun to make this record.

AAJ: Yeah, that's cool to hear. Have you got some side projects that you'd like to talk about?

MS: Well, some different things. This thing coming up with Weckl and Richard Bona. That's fresh for me because I haven't done that much with Richard Bona, certainly not out of New York We're going to do some gigs in the states. He's playing with me in New York, Boston and then Washington DC and then we're going to LA a little later, in March for a week and then we're going to play some college in Salt Lake City and then we're going to Japan. And in the middle of that there's some gigs I'd already booked with Victor Wooten and Weckl, and that's all with Bob Francescini on saxophone.

I've got some other stuff that I'm thinking about. There's a lot of options with different players that know my stuff and are into doing different stuff. Like I want to do some stuff with Kenny Garrett, so we're already talking about that, when we can find a time, when he's available and I'm available. And I'd love to, because he kills on this record and it was like an immediate kind of hookup. Just when we were playing the melodies together, the phrasing was like bang: just what I was looking for. He's got that very vocal thing, so it just melts together beautifully. And of course he got the vibe of it just immediately, whatever tune it was, he just got the vibe perfectly. Almost didn't need to say anything.

I'm also playing with people at the 55 Bar. That's kind of a regular gig, when I'm in town, which hasn't been that much lately. I'm playing there with John Riley on drums and Francois Moutin on bass; fantastic bassist and Chris Potter on saxophone. It's more straight ahead, we're just gonna play tunes, we haven't rehearsed at all. So, there's that kind of stuff, but you never know what happens; a couple of gigs and all of a sudden maybe I'll do some stuff with Chris Potter. I love playing with Bob Francescini. And Chris Minh Doky, he's on the last record of mine and we've been playing together some, too, and so he brings the upright and electric on the road so we might do some stuff together with my band, too. So I have different players that I love playing with. Of course, Lincoln Goines, too.

AAJ: Yeah, I was wondering what happened to him.

MS: Well, we played together so much that sometimes you want to just want to do some different stuff, but we still play together. We were playing together just a couple weeks ago. But you can't have the same guys on every record, even though sometimes I want Lincoln on there, because he's just ridiculous, he's an amazing, very special player, but its nice to have some fresh stuff after you've done ten records. This is the eleventh one, actually, on this new label. And you know the whole story about the label stuff. Atlantic closed its jazz. I'd still be there, I never questioned it; they kept picking up the option. They kept making whatever they need to make and they liked the music. It worked for them and it certainly worked for me. There's absolutely no more jazz at Atlantic. There's no jazz department all of a sudden, and I asked Ahmet Ertegun about it. All my other records are available still on Warner. They still survived so far, which is great. And they put the catalog out and all that stuff. But I asked Ahmet about it and he said it was that merger between Warner and AOL, and of course Atlantic is with Warner. They have a distribution company together: WEA: Warner, Electra, Atlantic. And he said they were cutting back all kinds of shit. And they cut back the jazz department. Jazz was making money for Altantic, albeit not a lot - it was jazz money ' but all the artists were in the plus column. But division 1 - its called niche music for Atlantic - was some rappers that weren't mainstream, a couple of dj's, some alternative rock and then the jazz department; it was all under the division 1. And some computer guys - AOL ' said well, we've got to cut this, this and this for cash flow and so they cut division 1 without putting it apart, you know, it was a corporate decision. You get slashed and you wonder what the fuck happened. Some asshole who doesn't even fucking know what the fuck's going on. So that's how that works out. That's George Bush's gift to America, and people like him, and that's what happens when corporations do all that shit. They make incredibly stupid decisions but they also make these broad brush, sweeping cuts where they don't discriminate.

AAJ: It's like what you said, they don't take the time to figure out what they're even doing.

MS: Yeah, exactly. They just said. 'Division one's gone. As a whole thing its not making money'. Instead of saying, 'Take this out of there, this out of there, this guy's making money in the rap thing, the dj's and the jazz dept.'s all in the black'. Anyway, so ESC had been after me for awhile, I mean had been interested and had told me - because I know Joachim Becker who's the head of ESC - they're a small, really a jazz label, which I'd never been with before. And they seem like they, over time, push more and promote more. So there's been a little glitch with the delayed release time with this record. It's coming out a little later in Europe, probably February or the end of January, and its out now in the states. But they're doing a lot of stuff now for it, so there should be a lot of them out there.

AAJ: So it's been a good move. I've noticed there are a lot of really good artists on ESC.

MS: They're very particular about who they sign and then they push whoever they're with to their maximum. And that's kind of what you need for jazz, people who will hang with it for more than 3 months, kind of thing. Although, WEA worked for me great. Atlantic, I gotta say, for me, worked fucking great. It was more than what I needed or just as much as I needed. Certain things will be better about this new record company, certain things won't be as good. But I think overall it'll be about the same. And I just want to try to get the music out there and see and keep doing this 'cause I love it.

AAJ: So Leni was supposed to be on this one or the last one?

MS: She was supposed to be on the last one ( Voices ) and then she couldn't. She was out of town and we couldn't schedule it. And we try to keep our separate careers, because you need that space when you're married, you know what I mean? (laughs). And its worked out great, we've been married like twenty'we don't even know even know how many years exactly. Like 23 years or something like that.

AAJ: So, the flip side: how do you guys deal with the time apart?

MS: It's hard. Sometimes that's the hardest part. Nothing's perfect. Sometimes she comes on the road, but I've been home since December and then January's just to be with her more 'cause I missed her, 'cause I was hittin' it a lot on the road. But that's just one of those things. We try to Do the best we can. When she's on the road, I'm on the road. We try to schedule it at the same time so we're home together, too. We end up spending a lot of time together.

AAJ: When did you start swimming?

MS: When did I start? I was jogging some. I mean, for years the only exercise I got was drinking and snorting. But I was more like just carrying on like crazy, I was a maniac. Everything I could possibly put into my bloodstream, I was doing it. And then when I got sober some years ago I found I needed something to take the edge off, so I started running a little bit and one time I hurt my back a little. I was playing with Mike Brecker for a week at the Bluenote and I'd pulled my back out. So I played the Bluenote all week with a brace on and I realized - I can't run ' so I started swimming, and it chilled me out completely. And even when my back was cooled out I was swimming, so I'm into it. I do it everyday now, whenever I can.

AAJ: What about clinics, what do you like to impart to students?

MS: Well, a lot of different things. Some just my experience and how I learned to get together whatever I got together: what I work on and how long it took. Because none of this stuff came easy for me. Whatever I got together did not come easy for me. I don't even know what I got together. Whatever it is, it didn't come easy (laughs). And I had to work hard at it but I got into it and I love the music, so I could get lost into it, and learning stuff, even at a slow pace and just stay with it.

AAJ: You don't make it sound difficult, that's for sure.

MS: Well, I try. For a while it was like pulling teeth but I kind of liken it to learning a language. You can't speak a language in three days - you know what I'm saying ' you've got to learn a word at a time. It's embarrassing at first, you mispronounce the words, you can't put them together, past tense, present tense is always fucked up; all that shit. And then you get some glimpse of fluency with the language and then it gradually becomes more and more fluent, if you stay with it. It's the same thing with this language. It's the same awkward feeling, the same learning curve, whatever that is; the same time it takes, but it's beautiful at the end of the day. You get a language that you can speak. Now you can always take a language to whatever degree - it's infinite ' how many ways you can put words together or learn more information in any language, so the sky's the limit. But when you get a certain fluency with the language then it gets to be fun and you can do whatever everybody wants to do: play their heart out. Music is a language and it's really a language of the heart. But of course you have to learn some fluency. At first its self conscious, I think. I had to wait and keep plugging away and sounding like shit for a long time, making a whole bunch of mistakes.

AAJ: Yeah, I don't know when that was, man. I've been listening to you for like 20 something years.

MS: (laughs). When I was first starting, man, that was definitely happening, for a while, and I just kept going. It was hard for me to learn all these chords. I was more of a blues/rock (player). I had other influences in me - but that was mainly where I was coming from. And learning stuff from CD's just by ear ' in those days it was records - and then I was listening to a couple of jazz records and then I tried to play along with those by ear and got lost immediately, so that's when I started studying more. And it took a minute, to say the least.

AAJ: Yeah, it's a weird feeling when you first start listening, because that's how I came to it, too, you know, it was Hendrix, the Stones, Johnny Winter and all that stuff. And then you hear this stuff and it does sound like a whole 'nother universe. Its like, are they even using the same 12 notes?

MS: Right (laughs). Exactly!

AAJ: It feels like that, right?

MS: I know! At first I had no clue, it just felt great and sounded cool and did something for me so I figured I'd get into it just a little bit to try to stretch my other kind of playing, the blues and rock. I felt like I was up against the wall with that. And then the more I got into jazz the more I fell in love with it, for myself.

AAJ: Well, the cool thing is that you kept that because it was a part of you anyway. You didn't turn your back on it. You've got to stick with where your heart's been.

MS: Definitely. Definitely. Because that stuff still knocks me out. I can walk into a club and hear some Hendrix or some new stuff that's simpler, that's got a great groove and just gets me. I don't question it, I don't pick it apart and say, 'Its too harmonically unsophisticated'. Fuck that. If it gets you, you got it. That's what Miles was amazing at and he used to talk about, Charlie Parker. Sometimes he'd be talking about playing with Bird and some of the chords Bird used to bring in that he was working on - chord progressions and stuff ' and all how interesting that was and how great it was. And then like the same day, later on he'd talk about the first time he ever heard Hendrix and what it did for him. How it knocked him out. And it was with equal energy. A different kind of energy that he would feel from each but there was some overlapping. And also, just the same intensity of energy. So he was into it. So it kind of made me feel like, 'Here's the cat', you know? And he's got that same kind of way of letting music in. He just listens from his heart and if it gets him it gets him. Now, I mean, you can't do everything with everything. You can't do too many things because then you'll lose any kind of direction, but its nice to try things and keep growing and let stuff happen. I try to keep continuity with my stuff, as I said before, but try to keep pushing and stretch out and try different things. I'm so amazed at somebody like Miles, when you hear what he did and how he kept his own voice, but he went through so many different kinds of colors and styles.

AAJ: I guess he had a more open mind than people gave him credit for.

MS: Well, of course they do now, and they did. He was amazing in that way. And very few cats are like that. He could just play Kind of Blue , that record did so well. And people were just saying just do that forever and he'd say, 'Naw, naw' (mimics Miles' rasp). And sometimes we'd want him to play more be-bop on the gig, because we wanted to. And he said, 'No. That shit make me feel old'. And he was kidding, 'cause he loved be-bop, he loved those years but that's not want he wanted to do at that time. And then he kind of came back to it. He did that Montreaux thing and then some of the Gil Evans stuff, again.

AAJ: So you guys'd warm up on bop before the check.

MS: Sometimes. And then he'd come in. He was cool with it. He'd play a blues a couple of seconds but its not what he wanted to do. Bad cat though.

AAJ: Did he ever talk about Stevie Ray?

MS: Some. He would talk about guys like that. I asked him about Stevie Ray one time. I got a chance to play with Joe Henderson some and I asked him - and all the great players that I've ever run into, are like this: Jim Hall is like this, of course Mike Brecker, Bob Berg, of course, everyone.

When they hear something from the heart they know. They don't look down at anybody. It may not be their favorite, first and foremost thing that they're into but, for instance, Joe Henderson came over here to my apartment, because I said I wanted to rehearse. And I told his manager, if I'm doing this gig at the Bluenote I want to rehearse. Don't just tell him to show up and throw a couple of charts in a be-bop kind of a way. And I'm not that good a reader; I don't want to do it. I want to know the tunes. So everybody said, 'He ain't gonna show up, man, you'll be lucky if he shows up at the gig. That's the Phantom. They call him the Phantom. He's late for his own gigs'.

And he came. A couple hours later I was just getting ready to leave, I said, 'Well, I guess he Didn't show up'. And all of a sudden the doorbell rang and I just let him up to the apartment and we played for like five hours straight; talking about all kinds of shit. He sat right on my bed and I sat on a chair and we just played and, like, he was killin'. And I asked him what tunes we're doing and he gave me all this, that and the other thing and then he was looking through my CD collection and he saw Stevie Ray. I said, 'Hey, you like Stevie Ray?', He said, 'Stevie Ray, man, was a motherfucker at what he did'. Joe always had this proper way of talking. He was a very intelligent guy. He knew seven languages, Joe. He used to talk about music being like a language and he heard me say that one time to somebody and he said that's how he taught, too. He said if you've ever learned a new foreign language, it's the same thing: you learn it a word at a time and a phrase at a time and you learn the logistics and the theory behind it. Speak it and listen to it, because that's the way you learn this language, is by playing it and by listening. That's ultimately the way you learn any language. And so he used to say the same thing. And he really could know that because he spoke seven different languages. He was an unbelievable cat.

AAJ: He was one of my favorite sax players, too. Mode for Joe , In and Out '

MS: Of course. Ridiculous. Unbelievable. All that, man, its incredible. He was a really great cat, too, in many ways. I just had a chance to play with him, Al Foster, Dave Holland at the Bluenote for a week. It really was a fun gig. And then we went to Brazil but it wasn't the same. It was Al and George Mraz. We went down there and did a couple gigs and then we did another week at the Bluenote with a more Brazilian band, Paolo Braga, doing Jobim tunes.

MS: Do you do Jobim tunes?

MS: Some. I mean I did more that week than ever. I mean they were tunes that I'd never heard before that he'd covered. He did a record ( Double Rainbow ) and he wanted me to play on the live gig. He did it with all Brazilians and nylon string player, but then it came down to the live gigs and we had done gigs together so he called me for that, too. So I had those chances to play with him and they were all fucking fun as hell.

AAJ: Are there pockets in the world where your stuff does best, that you can always count on?

MS: Europe is generally more for the arts, its more of an open situation, presumably because we spend more money in military and they spend more education and generally certainly music is in that, too. And there's a little bit of funding for clubs, which is unheard of here. So there's a little bit more of possibilities there, and festivals. There's just more of a priority of culture.

AAJ: You'd see less empty seats in clubs over there or in Japan.

MS: But everywhere that happens. It doesn't matter to me. I just keep getting gigs. And generally its been very cool, but you never know whether or whatever happens; an important basketball game's on'I don't care. I just show up and play the best I know how to play and that's all you can do. You play your heart out, man, and that's it! It makes me almost feel good, so I try to keep that happening. But anyway, you don't think about that, you just keep going. But so far, so good, I've been really counting my blessings that I've been so lucky to have played with such great players in my career and to just be able to now do what projects I want to do, in really my own band. And also, I should mention Dennis. We did a bunch of stuff over the summer.

AAJ: Yeah, you've always said that drummers are the most important thing.

MS: Well, drummers are damned important, man. As soon as drummers are involved you've gotta deal with the drummer first, 'cause that's your heartbeat right there. And everybody has different strengths and weaknesses. Like I play with cats like John Riley, for instance, or Al Foster or Terri Lynne Carrington, and she's amazing, she plays all kinds of stuff. They all are great. Dave Weckl brings a different strength and he's amazing musically and keep his own voice but he's got certain things that are stronger in certain areas than in other areas. And Richie Morales is another one who just plays his heart out. Lionel Cordew and of course, Dennis Chambers.

So you just get people that you dig start having some of your tunes and learn enough tunes and then start doing stuff with them. Ari Honig is another guy. I did this video and Ari Honig's on it; he's a motherfucker bassist and can play different stuff in his way. But the drummer, for me, you've gotta start there. You've got to have a really strong drummer. If you're going to use a drummer the shit's gotta have a certain kind of threshold where it's happening, because then it doesn't matter what anybody else does. I've always been lucky to get really smoking' players.

You've gotta have your heartbeat, If your heart goes it don't matter how well your kidneys are going, that shit's gone (laughs). Jaco used to say the same thing. If the drummer wasn't happening, man, he'd change up. He'd get somebody he could definitely work with. But once you add a drummer to a gig, he's got to be on, you've got to deal with it.

AAJ: Didn't you guys used to do some duo stuff?

MS: If you have a strong duo thing happening and you add a drummer and the drummer's ain't happening, the duo ain't gonna be happening. If you want to just keep your own time with a duo that's something else, totally. But once you add a drummer he's got the most responsibility, he's the strongest player onstage, just physically and dynamically and everything. But yeah, I've of done a lot of gigs with a duos.

AAJ: So what's happening with the back catalog now?

MS: Well, they're doing surround sound stuff now, of this record, and maybe if I can get some of the ones from Warner.

AAJ: Like a 5.1 thing?

MS: Yeah, but Warner is hard to get catalog from the companies. Hopefully they'll just keep that stuff out and maybe do their own 5.1 for some of those titles, or a composite record or different records.

I had this experience of doing a radio show; and usually I'm really self critical, over the top, and basically it can be a good thing because it keeps you pushing but sometimes it can be over the top. I did this radio show on WKCR - Columbia University, and the guy has a lot of leeway to do stuff, this guy Ted Panken, who's a writer and a cool guy, and is definitely a jazz nut. And so we did something where we played stuff from this record and then played some of my favorite records, like guitar and horn records. We couldn't get to everything, but we played 'Smokin' at the Halfnote' (Wes), some Jim Hall/Bill Evans duos, like you mentioned; 'Undercurrents' and that other one, and then we played some of my stuff and I went, 'Oh, boy, this is suicide, man, my shit's gonna sound like shit', but it was cool! It worked and sounded great. It sounded like it worked in the same format and it reminded me so much of Europe and this one little college station, and a very cool one.

Europe is much more like that. I did something else like that in Europe. It just feels so interesting to me and I was relieved and happy, 'cause I don't listen to it after it's done ' you mix it, you write it - you know how it is. I mean certainly I know I worked my ass off, for better or worse, that's for sure. You're going to hear some effort in it. I'm really happy with the way this one came out.

AAJ: Do you think you'll be working with some of the other guys at ESC: Bill Evans or Randy?

MS: Yeah, sure. I'd love to do some stuff with Randy (Brecker). Bill, of course we played together with Miles, so that might be fun and of course Dennis (Chambers), we're still gonna be doing stuff. But I'm kind of keying more on not too many separate projects and just trying to do my own stuff, albeit with different cats. I like to change it up but I like doing my own stuff, it's a ball doing that, and I feel like it pushes me in a way, musically, that I want to be pushed. I really just want to develop whatever potential I have. And that seems to be the way to go for me, to do my own stuff and try to make it work with different cats. Sometimes it's hard to do. I've recorded almost a hundred tunes now, on other people's records ' written for them ' or especially on my own records and it's hard to play and get cats together and rehearse. And so sometimes you end up playing some similar stuff where you want to change up. It doesn't matter. If you get different guys and you play the same tune and they put their own thing on it. If the tune's open enough in a live setting, it's fresh, for me anyway. But that's one of the hard logistical things: to try to get cats together and do all new tunes. It's really hard.

AAJ: Do you see yourself playing with Pat (Metheny) sometime? You guys need to do a record.

MS: It'd be fun. I love his playing and all. But I think he did the thing with Sco and some stuff with Frisell and he's feeling like the same thing. I know he feels the same way about guitar. He's into it, but he's into other instruments and other colors, and I kind of feel the same way but I'd love to do maybe a cut with him, at some point before (laughs)'that would be a wonderful experience for me, I'm sure, but you never know, we'll see what happens.

AAJ: So do you get to play with any new players? Ever do anything with Wayne Krantz?

MS: Yeah, sure. Wayne's a great friend of mine and Adam Rodgers (with Scofield). I play with him sometimes. But my favorite's still are guys who are coming from blues and have that same kind of swinging thing, and I feel that very much from Sco, and something like that from Frisell. It's just where we came from and what was happening with the music when we grew up, I guess, and so I kind of feel that. There's another guy named Jay Azzolina, who's not particularly well known, but he plays his fuckin' ass off. First and foremost I hear that in somebody's playing and that's what gravitates me more than an interesting kind of player. You know, you can play a certain thing, the same line, but some people have this thing to it that gets me, anyway. And maybe two people might say, 'Well, I don't really hear it', but for me, I notice a certain time feel that I kind of gravitate towards. It's kind of a subtle thing but it's very strong for me and it makes me dig certain players. There's another guy, Pete Bernstein, I love. A straight-ahead player but he's got that same kind of in-that-world-that-I-dig, thing. It's not a question of whether or not he rocks it's more of a swing kind of thing, which I feel is even in my rock playing. And you wouldn't call it swing, really, because its not, but it is. There's a certain kind of thing when Sco plays funk I feel it swingin'. You know what I'm saying. And Frisell, the way he plays, its not so much swingin' but I feel something that gets me. I can't explain it.

AAJ: Its almost hard to describe, you've got to experience it.

MS: Exactly. It is hard. It's impossible to describe. I could try but it wouldn't do it justice. It's one of those things that should be left invisible. It's whatever it is. But there's a lot of great players that I try hook up with and try to learn from. There's so many different cats.

[Note: Mike's gear list includes a Mike Aronson Telecaster w/ a 50's Broadcaster neck or a Pacifica Telecaster style guitar running through a Pearce GR-1 w/ Hartke 4x10 cabinet & a Yamaha G-100 w/ 2 12's. Effects are: Yamaha SPX-90, Boss CH-1 super chorus, OC-1 Octaver, (2) DD-3 Digital Delays and a DS-1 Distortion. The SPX-90 is used for chorus only].

Photo Credit
Helmut Riedel .



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