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Mike Stern: Playing by Heart

By Published: March 19, 2004

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.

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