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?
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