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Mike Stern: Playing by Heart

By Published: March 19, 2004

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.

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