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Mike Stern: Playing by Heart

By Published: March 19, 2004

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.

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