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Mike Stern: Half Crazy

Jim Worsley By

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SoCal Jazz is back from safari to the auspicious Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. A follow-up with guitarist Mike Stern was the primary itinerary for this trip. Trip is the name of Stern's new record, just in case you missed the play on words. Unfortunately, Stern had a trip of another kind in 2016. How it happened, the devastating injuries sustained, how it has impacted his playing and more were detailed in Mike Stern: What A Trip, from earlier this year.

This subsequent interview encapsulates much more than a follow-up on his injuries and treatments. Stern also talks about his musical process, his time with Miles Davis, the making of Trip, New York's 55 Bar and opened up with regards to more personal matters.

The candor with which he spoke about his battles with drug and alcohol addictions and rehab made it a very powerful conversation. It was a quite poignant conversation as well, as he glowingly shared his feelings about the love of his life, Leni Stern. His wife of nearly 38 years is also an accomplished guitarist. Moreover, she is a stylish vocalist with superb phrasing.

All About Jazz: How are you? What is the current state of your injuries?

Mike Stern: In some ways it's more of a challenge since it's been going on for so long. It's definitely getting better, it's slowly getting better. In some ways better in that I'm used to dealing with it. I'm getting a lot of good feedback from people that I really trust that have said they are hearing no difference. That the music really comes out and they're hearing no problem. But I am certainly feeling it! It's painful. The pain management I gotta do and all that shit. Which is cool you know. Life goes on. It's an extra effort, to say the least. But I am grateful to play. It's a healing process. And people say "yeah, yeah, right it's a healing process." But it really is. I'm still using the wig glue to hold the pick. And a little scotch tape around the pick to make it fatter and give me something to grab on to.

AAJ: I know you have had some procedures to repair damage. Is there still more of that to come?

MS: The next thing is that in the beginning of January they are going to take this finger, my index finger, and move it up a little. He tightened it up before with the tendons, which helped a lot. The guy is awesome. He has done some stuff for Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen and other cats like that. A lot of people with hand and arm issues go to him. He's a good cat. Some stuff comes back.

Unfortunately, it's just not enough over time. The injury was all the way up here [pointing to just below his shoulder on his right arm] to this bone, the humerus bone. It must have broken at the top of the humerus bone. It's like a quarterback's injury, when they hold the ball like this [doing his best impression of Eli Manning taking a snap]. It's the shock that is absorbed by the elbow or maybe the forearm. It sucks. I don't like even thinking about it. The doctor has more stuff down the road to straighten my fingers out. But yeah it's hard...hard to even think about.

AAJ: Let's change gears then. Your latest record, Trip, is just outstanding. I have listened to it many times. If you would, talk about what makes this record special.

MS: For me it's just a combination of people. That's the way I've been getting inspired. Really extra-inspired by getting people on the record that I work with. A bunch of different cats. Because generally over the course of going out and letting people know I have a new record out it's great to be able to say that I'm playing with Randy Brecker, Dave Weckl, Tom Kennedy, Victor Wooten, Bob Franceschini, and so many more. I did a gig shortly after my accident with Chick Corea and Wallace Roney. I've known Wallace for years so I said I just got to get him on this record. I did a thing with Lenny White last summer, who is also on this record. So I get all these guys and I'm so blessed that they want are interested in doing something with me. It's an honor to play with cats like these. They kick my ass and really inspire me. And then the finger doesn't hurt so much [laughs], I'm not even thinking about it.

AAJ: So, what is the process for a record like this?

MS: I don't usually like to have the drummer do something over here and like that. It's live. Sometimes you can't do it, but 99% of the time it's live. Even when I have to do that I still record it live with someone else and then replace it so that it still has that live feel. You still want the feel. Then you can use the studio for what you need. You can fix something or add an overdub, because you may as well use it. I do like the ideas that happen while you are recording and sometimes just talking about it when you're running it down. You may get a last minute idea of putting the drums here instead of there or whatever. Those kind of things happen when everyone is at the same gig at the same time. Then there is the spontaneity, more so in the solo parts than in the arranged parts. I try to leave quite a bit of room for everybody and let the cats do their thing. Of course there are written out bass lines that need to be there for the melody and stuff like that.

AAJ: You are looking for freedom of expression.

MS: Yes, exactly. The freedom of expression and also if they say, "Can I change this up a little? You know, maybe this note is better or sometimes no, that's not what I'm looking for." And it's kind of hard to do that when it's locked in somewhere in cyberspace. I live in New York. Everybody is either coming through New York or whatever. Victor Wooten, Dennis Chambers, and Bob Franceschini were playing at the Blue Note. I said "Let's hook up..."and just like that, man.

AAJ: Speaking of New York, could you talk a little bit about the 55 Bar?

MS: I've been doing that for 30 years. There's a guy named Jeff Andrews, a cat I used to play with a lot on my early records. We just played there together recently. I hadn't played there for a while. He is an awesome bassist. He found the place. Peter Williams was the owner at the time and he asked Jeff if he wanted to do some music there. Jeff said, "Sure and that I know a guy named Mike Stern." William's said. "Who's that? Well, just bring him by." I was still playing with Miles at the time. He was paying like nothing much. I think at that point I was drinking a lot and he just paid me in wine. I think I probably got my money's worth too because he gave me as much as I wanted. Which was a shitload. So anyways, we played at the 55 Bar as a duo and then added a drummer. This was like 30 years ago. We didn't want to make a lot of noise so he played brushes, then chopsticks, then he brought in sticks and it got louder. No one complained. Now there is music there all the time.

AAJ: "Bury Me Standing" is one of my favorite songs. Not just one of my favorites of Leni's, but a favorite overall. Will you two do a record together at some point?

MS: You should hear her new one! She just did an EP. It's so fucking good. We will end up doing something. We play at home all the time. We play John Coltrane tunes. I mean she can play some hard shit; she can make all the changes. I mean she can play, It's fun as hell! Leni used to play with Paul Motian at the 55 Bar. He would tell her that as long as she would have his drums picked up that he would be there. They did that for about a year. And you know Motian has played with some of the greatest musicians in the world including Bill Evans [the pianist; not the saxophonist of the same name].

And you know how marriage is sometimes. I think sometimes it's tricky. A long shot really for someone to meet the right person. But with Leni the chemistry seems to work like crazy. We are both recovering alcoholics and junkies and everything like that. We were getting high together. Then we took away the drugs and still our love was strong. She's the reason I got sober. And that's not usually the case. I mean you take away the drugs and the relationship changes. We did it together. But still it's a long shot. Nobody thought it would happen. But the love is still there. So Leni and I? Well, she's amazing.

AAJ: Since everyone always asks you about Mile Davis, I considered not doing that. But since you already brought him up...

MS: It was great. I was playing with one of my heroes of all time. Miles was always very supportive. Even when he found out I was fucked up. Bill Evans [the saxophonist]—who, by the way, is one bad ass saxophonist who also plays on Trip—was in the band. Miles told Bill that it looks like we have a junkie in the band. He was cool with it for a while. You know, it wasn't like he wasn't getting fucked up too. But finally, Miles told me that it was really hard for him but that he had to let me go. But wanted to know when I was ready to come back. So I said, "Okay Chief, but I'm fine." Which was bullshit! I told him the tracks on my arm were old. But he knew better. He said [now using his best Miles voice impression] "Fat Time (he used to call me Fat Time), don't try to fool an old pro!" [laughs] Hey, you know you have a problem when Miles Davis thinks you're doing too much [more laughter]. I had seen the writing on the wall so I joined Jaco Pastorius and that was cool for a while. But then, when I got out of rehab, Jaco wanted me to come back. But Jaco was still into it and I was fresh. I had to tell him "I just can't go on the road with you." I just couldn't be around it. A short time later Miles called and I was back with him.

Coverage from the show at MIM...

With two shows to play that night at the Musical Instrument Museum's intimate 300 seat theater, it was time for Stern to wrap things up. I, of course, thanked him for his time and sincerity. Ever gracious, he thanked me and warmly stated how wonderful it was to see my wife, Ronda, and I again.

He greeted the audience with, "Here's a song I wrote about myself. It's called 'Half Crazy.'" It is a tune from Trip that is just under six minutes long on the record. That now seems like almost an edited version as we were then gifted with a brilliant 20-minute Mike Stern guitar journey. It was an epic treat for the ears. It also made me smile that Stern was able to play at his astonishing virtuoso level despite—or, perhaps, through—the pain.

Supported energetically by drummer Weckl, bassist Kennedy, and trumpeter Brecker, the 90-minute performance seemed to pass by in an instant. It must have had something to do with just how truly strong the music was. The dynamics of an acoustically well-designed venue certainly didn't hurt either.

They closed with "Red House." Stern made the song that Jimi Hendrix made famous his own. Not known for his singing, Stern added a solid and confident vocal to the blues classic.

As always, the now standing crowd wanted more. The evening ended with good humor as the man with seventeen solo albums to his credit, six Grammy nominations and four decades in the music industry jokingly said, "We don't know any other songs."

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