Mike Stern: Different Orbits

Jim Worsley BY

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Mike is just such a badass player. He has that strong rock and bebop edge. It has been a whole lot of fun playing with him.
—Jeff Lorber
Having arrived in London from New York City to play two nights at legendary Ronnie Scott's with Dave Weckl, Tom Kennedy, and Randy Brecker, Mike Stern was understandably jet lagged. The revered guitarist and composer has no doubt become used to it. Traveling the world for many years now, the gifted artist can be found annually in Poland, Switzerland, Italy, China, Morocco, Japan, France, England, Sweden, Denmark, Canada, Germany, Czech Republic, and, well the list goes on. Darting in and out of time zones on a regular basis can be exhausting. But it doesn't seem to bother this always upbeat, positive, and most sincere man. It was just after 1:00 A.M. (London time) when my phone rang. Fortunately, that was just after 5:00 P.M. in California. Most guys would have crashed and got some much-needed rest before the next day's (actually, it was already the next day) sound check. But not Mike Stern. Instead, he returns my phone call. After the initial "Hi, how you doing?" exchanges, he explains to me the circumstances already outlined here and says, "Man, I really need to get some sleep, but I wanted to get back with you. We can talk for about ten minutes or so." Some forty minutes later I "tucked him in," so to speak, saying, "Hey man, I gotta let you go and get some sleep." Ever gracious, he says "Yeah man, I know, but I'm enjoying the conversation with you."

I hope you enjoy it as well. Stern had much to say about new projects, including a soon to be released record with Jeff Lorber, tours (yes, plural), the love of his life, his passion for music, and more.

All About Jazz: How are you doing, Mike? How are things with the injuries you sustained to your hand and shoulder over two years ago?

Mike Stern: It's okay. It's getting better. I think I am just getting better at dealing with it. I'm having fun playing. I think that says a lot. It's a challenge but it's well worth it.

AAJ: I know you have had a few surgeries to repair damage. Are there still more to come?

MS: No, no this is it. I'm just dealing with what I got now. It's enough. It's pretty cool. People aren't hearing any major differences at all. The people that know me and know about the accident don't hear any difference. That's good news. It's just some pain and discomfort and all that stuff. I just try not to think about it too much.

AAJ: Well then, let's talk about the new record coming out with Jeff Lorber.

MS: Yeah, it's cool. Jimmy Haslip called me, and of course I know Jimmy from doing a record with the Yellowjackets.

AAJ: Yeah, the Lifecycle(Heads Up, 2008) album from a few years back.

MS: Yeah man, exactly. He asked me if I wanted to do something with Jeff Lorber. Jeff and I are kind of in different orbits and I wasn't even all that familiar with his stuff. I mean a little bit, sure. But he is a very well-known and well-respected musician. What stuff I had heard was good and really happening. So, kind of coming from different places, so I thought why not give that a shot. We ended up deciding to do a co-led group and do a record.

AAJ: Co-led, so you both contributed tunes?

MS: Yeah, we did a half and half with some of my tunes and some of Jeff's tunes. It worked out really well. I wanted to record my stuff live.

AAJ: I know that is generally your preference to get that live feel and improvisation going on.

MS: Yeah, that's exactly right, Jim. You can always go back in and fix something if you want to, or need to, but at least you have that live feel and vibe going on. You got tons of stuff that is recorded live. This conversation is probably already fucking live (laughing) on YouTube or somewhere.

AAJ: (laughing out loud) You recorded in Los Angeles, right?

MS: Yeah, I went out to Los Angeles and we recorded with Dave Weckl and Jimmy in Jeff's studio. Dave played on all but one tune on this record. Dave was out of town and Gary Novak, who plays a lot with Jeff, came in for this one ballad called "Tell Me." So, it all worked out well. All of my tunes, the five that I wrote, had been recorded in the past. But I thought it would be cool to record them in this context. To have different interpretations of them. It turned out to be a fun record with both Jeff's stuff and mine. At the same time, we are both very serious about our music and made the effort to fit in to each other's orbit.

AAJ: That's kind of cool. Which songs, other than 'Tell Me," did you choose for this record?

MS: Well, actually there is one tune that I wrote that had not been recorded. A tune called "Nu Som."

AAJ: Yeah, yeah that's the one that Leni (musician and vocalist Leni Stern, who is married to Mike) plays on, right?

MS: Yeah man, she plays the ngoni (an African stringed instrument) beautifully. Everyone played great. Really everyone played their asses off on the whole record.

AAJ: Where did the name "Nu Som" come from?

MS: I named it after Sandrine Lee. She is a very close friend of Leni's, and of mine. Sandrine and her husband, Will Lee, have been really good friends for a long time now. Sandrine has this really cool book of photography and her artist name in French is nous sommes. She is French, if I didn't say that already. It translates to "we are." She spells it as Nu Som as her artist name. I thought it would be a cool title and a way to respect her friendship and inspiration. When Sandrine and Leni are hanging out, they are just so cool together. Really tight. I guess it just kind of acknowledges our long-time friendship with both Sandrine and Will. She just has this special kind of vibe, like Leni does. But I have so many tunes named after Leni I had to figure out something else (laughing).

AAJ: You have to share the wealth a little bit (laughing).

MS: Exactly, exactly (laughing).

AAJ: I love the fact that there are ten songs on an album called Eleven.

MS: Yeah, well I never was much good at math (laughing). It's just one louder (a reference to ten generally being the highest number to crank up to)! We actually had eleven songs at one point but dropped one. Jeff and I just said fuck it, it's a cool title, and decided that we liked it and left it alone.

AAJ: Well, it will get people talking. As in, "Why is it Eleven when there are ten songs?" or "there must be some other abstract reason for the name."

MS: Exactly, exactly. I thought so too. Actually, somehow or the other, Jeff and I had seen the name eleven on some track listing or something before all this and jokingly said that we should just call it that. Then as it turns out we did. "Slow Change," "Jones Street," and "Ha Ha Hotel "are the other tunes that are mine in addition to "Nu Som" and "Tell Me." What did you think of the way "Tell Me" came out, Jim?

AAJ: Well, it's such a melodious ballad. The original on Between the Lines (Atlantic, 1996) had such sweet exchanges between you and saxophonist Bob Malach. This new take has a heartfelt inner intensity put into it and has some very nice soft edges. Great tune either way, as are "Slow Change" from Voices ( Atlantic, 2001), "Jones Street" from Give and Take (Atlantic, 1997), and "Ha Ha Hotel" from Is What It Is (Atlantic 1994). Cool choices to reinvent with Lorber. I talked to Lorber recently, and he was very upbeat about working with you and on the record saying, "Everybody I have talked to about it has become immediately interested and knew it would be something different and cool."

MS: Oh yeah. He's a real musical cat. He is an awesome producer. He has a whole different way of producing where maybe he already has the drums recorded or at least conceptualized. Then I added my stuff as an overdub. It was very cool to see at the end of the day the way he puts it all together. He's really amazing at it. I know, for certain kinds of records, Pat Metheny does it that way too. It really depends on what you are doing and what you want it to be. But yeah, Jeff has played with a lot of people over the years. When we were at his house, I asked him about maybe using a Bruce Hornsby kind of sound. He says oh yeah yeah, like no problem. Then I happen to notice the Hornsby record Harbor Lights (RCA, 1993) on the wall that he played on that went like fucking platinum or whatever. It's fun to get to know him. A really nice cat to be around with a lot of energy.

AAJ: You have featured multiple artists on your records for many years now, so kind of a change-up in itself to be back to a set group approach.

MS: Yeah that actually is part of what makes it fresh and something different for me. What goes around comes around. What's old is new. Looking forward to taking these cats out of the studio and playing live shows. We haven't played gigs together yet, so kind of exciting. We both agreed that we are going to stretch some stuff. You know, on a record you want get a bunch of tunes on there so sometimes you have to limit yourself and that's a good way to go. But live is a whole different thing. Really live, where you are stretching out. It should be a lot of fun. As you well know, Jim, I am used to having either a saxophone or trumpet player as part of my quartet. It will be a whole new and different thing jamming with a keyboard player. Especially one who can push it like Jeff does. We will have Jimmy on bass. Weckl will play drums on the west coast and Dennis Chambers will be our drummer on the east coast and in Europe.

AAJ: I'm there, man. Either Los Angeles or Phoenix, or both.

MS: That's very cool, Jim. I've got to get Leni out to the MIM (Musical Instrument Museum) in Phoenix.

AAJ: Oh man she will love that place.

MS: She will be in fucking ngoni heaven! I just did some gigs with her. We did a quartet thing in Poland. She stays busy with her own band, but sits in with my band as often as she can. I had a few shows over there with a couple of cats I have known for a while now. Identical twins that are a bassist and a drummer. Also, a great pianist over there I play with. Oh, and I was telling you about Nigel Kennedy when I left you a voice mail...

AAJ: Yeah, yeah, the violinist.

MS: Oh man, this cat plays his ass off. He's crazy in a good way. A funny cat and just a smokin' player. He can play the hell out of that instrument. It's ridiculous. He's very respected as a classical violinist. Some serious shit that people are really into. But we played Jimi Hendrix stuff. I mean he was rockin' it. A big Marshall amplifier, loud as hell.

AAJ: That sounds awesome. I'm sure a lot of people would love to hear that. I'd love to hear you guys doing that stuff.

MS: Well it looks like you might get to do that, Jim. We are looking to do some shows together next year in the July through September range.

AAJ: Outstanding. That will all be in Europe though, right?

MS: I'm pretty sure we are going to do some shows in the States as well. That's the plan anyways. The promoter gave me some pretty specific dates to hold.

AAJ: I know I just said this a few minutes ago, but I'm there!

MS: I figured as much. I will keep you posted on that.

AAJ: Thank you. Yes, please do so that we can keep our readers updated.

MS: Next year is a monumental year for Hendrix. It's the fiftieth anniversary of his death (September 18th, 1970). So, it seems like a good time for us to do it. Nigel likes to play really loud and is into the drama and dynamics of it all. He can turn it down and play some beautiful quiet shit too. It's fresh. It's fresh for sure to hear a violin player of his caliber just rocking out like that. It's pretty amazing.

AAJ: I'm guessing you have also penned some new tunes since your last record, the aptly titled Trip (Concord, 2017).

MS: Yeah, I have a few and plan to do another record in the not-too-distant future.

AAJ: That's great. So, we have Eleven to look forward to in September, know that there will be more just around the corner, and, for good measure, a boatload of live shows. Thanks much for the chat Mike. Best to you as you continue to travel the globe sharing your passion for music. And get some sleep, will ya'?

MS: Always great talking to you Jim. It's a blast out there. If you can't have fun playing music, then you really have a problem! I have enjoyed it so much over the years. Time to crash now for sure though, bro. Goodnight.

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