Mike Stern: Playing by Heart

Mike Brannon By

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A little history: Mike Stern was the controversial guitarist that accompanied Miles Davis on Saturday Night Live in 1981 as he made his historic and unexpected return to the world stage and studio after a seven year hiatus; both taking critial heat for the music's rock edge. Miles' now famous directions to his new guitarist, "Turn it up, or turn it off" underscored his Hendrixian affinity and always forward thought. Stern was later called to join legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius when forming his "Word of Mouth" sextet. Among stints with Mike Maineri's Steps Ahead, Mike Brecker, The Brecker Brothers, Billy Cobham, BST and Joe Henderson, Stern has to date released 11 solo albums, garnered three Grammy nominations, and numerous Best Guitar Player wins, where he brings his unique mixture of swing feel, sophisticated harmonic sense, post bop linear expressions and relentless blues/rock attitude to his own groups.

Influenced by guitarists from Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall to Hendrix and Clapton, as well as, 'Trane and McCoy Tyner, Stern blends harmonic intellect and a warm, brilliant tone with the soulful edge of rock, blues and funk seamlessly; effortlessly. And he always seems to have a blast doing it, as consequently do his audiences.

Whether as sideman for Miles, Brecker, Jaco, Cobham, Blood, Sweat & Tears or collaborating with Bob Berg, Jim Hall, Pat Martino, John Scofeld, Bill Frisell or George Coleman, Stern has made an indelible mark on the current sonic soundscape, influencing thousands of guitarists trying to emulate the elusive tone, the phrasing, the linear development, the voicings, the vibe, the music itself. All unique components of Stern's instantly recognizable sound.

With the Grammy-nominated Voices , his tenth and final album for Atlantic, Stern expanded on his instrumental oeuvre by breaking from the traditional territory of that idiom with the addition of bassist/vocalist Richard Bona (currently with Pat Metheny), Philip Hamilton and others along with the always stellar rhythm sections of Dennis Chambers, Lincoln Goines and Vinnie Coliauta (w/ Sting). Mike Brecker guests on tenor sax.

Stern's latest release, These Times , continues this focus on the added texture of vocals as an instrument and seems an appropriate title not only for Stern's latest release and move to new label, (ESC/Germany), but also for the current zeitgeist. Just that sense of 'what's up' or what's next, people seem to currently be asking of each other and the world around them. Joined by a who's who of world's musical talent pool, Stern embarks on his second vocal excursion and the latest phase of his extensive and varied career.

It's early January during one of the coldest winters in recent years and Stern was home in New York on a break between tours when this was done.

All About Jazz: So how are you liking that heat wave up there?

Mike Stern: Yeah, its great. For instance today its going to be better. Its up to a big, balmy 30 degrees.

AAJ: So you just got off tour.

MS: Well, that was awhile ago, I've been home playing around New York for about a month now.I'm going to be playing at the Iridium January 27th for a week, in New York. You know the club? 51st and Broadway or something like that. Its with Dave Weckl, Richard Bona and Bob Francescini, on the new CD. That's the quartet for these gigs coming up in the states and Then we're going to Japan. Victor Wooten is doing a couple of dates, too, coming up in San Francsico, and a week in Yoshi's in Seattle, also. Then we're going to Washington and Boston.

AAJ: How does that change when you go from one player to another?

MS: Well, I do that all the time with different cats, you know, there are a few that are just bad motherfuckers. They put their own thing on the music and so it's really fun. I mean I just really feel honored that they want to do gigs with me. I feel, they're really great players and its flattering to be able to get those cats to play, to do gigs with you. Playing with Weckl's going to be great, too. He's on an earlier record on mine called 'Between the Lines'. We played a lot together so I'm looking forward to playing with him. I wanted him actually to be on this record also ('These Times'). I wanted Vinnie (Coliauta), Dave and Dennis (Chambers) but you can't get everybody. It's just impossible with the scheduling and everything and budget and everything.

AAJ: Yeah. So, Richard's been doing all the vocals on tour?

MS: Well, there's not many vocals on tour, it's much more live instrumental. He does a couple of tunes when we tour. We haven't done that much touring. We just did some gigs, sometimes unadvertised, at the 55 Bar, just kind of jamming and he does some of the vocals, and then we did a gig at the Iridium last year when Voices was out (which Bona guests on vocals, bass and Kalimba) we did a couple of the tunes and he sang a couple of them - just quartet ' so it doesn't sound produced, its just one voice. It's not layered voices or anything.

AAJ: So how set are set lists, or is it pretty much open?

MS: Its pretty open. I like to have a set that kind of works, but the tunes are all open. We really play them and stretch them live, so you hear Victor ' both of them ' play a lot. Richard and Victor get to play a lot and Bob Franceschini, of course, Weckl will get a chance to play a lot. And Richard Bona: he's done some gigs on is own and he's done gigs with Bobby McFerrin, with Pat Metheny, but he doesn't stretch on the bass as much as he does on my gig. He plays a lot. I want him to play a lot, He plays the shit out of the bass. He's got a great vibe, too. It's sure kickin' my ass. The two of those guys inspire me.

AAJ: You keep writing tunes on tour?

MS: I try to. It's always a challenge to keep writing tunes. And of course, it's the best thing. Whatever's the hardest thing usually is the stuff you get the most out of (laughs). And so generally I just try to write and lately I've been in a kind of practice mode. And usually what I do practice wise is a lot of playing with a bassist to try out different stuff. But I do a lot of transcribing - horn players, especially. I've always been trying to get a horn-like sound on the guitar - singing kind of sound ' even when I'm playing lines. You know, make it sound kind of airy. I use a stereo sound (Stern's gear list is below). Part of the reason is for that kind of airier sound, like a horn; more vocal, and I'm way into horn players. That's what I listen to a lot and try to get: some of those ideas on the guitar. And piano players, not so much directly from other guitars, although, of course, I love hearing other great players. There's tons of them out there, young cats and older cats and in between, and so I check out everybody. But I've been definitely focusing on other instruments, especially tenor saxophone, for the ideas and for the kind of phrasing I want to go for.

AAJ: How do you develop your voicings; how have you developed those?

MS: I guess just by listening to piano. Sometimes you can't play all the notes 'cause they can double and stuff, but you try to get some of those voicings on the guitar. And some voicings are just like you get tendonitis every time you try to play them. I try to make them more interesting without killing myself, so a lot of times they're just two-note voicings. All you need is two notes to have a chord.

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