MIKE STERN INTERVIEW | Master of Improvisation

Mike Stern is one of the most important jazz/rock guitarists of his generation. For the past 25 years, his ability to mix lightning fast chops and beautiful lyricism has made him an extremely sought after sidemen and a prolific leader. His playing has been described as "bop & roll" for his ability to mix Charlie Parker-esque jazz lines with Hendrix-esque bends and guitar contortions to create a sound completely his own.

Through the years Stern has played with Miles Davis, Jaco Pastorius, John Scofield, Billy Cobham and lists of other legends long enough to bore a jazz historian. His 10th and latest album as a leader, Voices, was recently nominated for the Grammy of Best Contemporary Jazz Album.

It would be an immense understatement to say that I was excited when Mike Stern's Feb 20-24th shows at Yoshi's with Victor Wooten and Dennis Chambers (drummer for Parliament Funkadelic) were announced. I could not formulate a better combination of true chops players that can also play with the passion of devout catholic newlyweds. This legendary cat was putting the J in Jam before a lot of us figured out that broccoli was actually good without cheese on top. For those of you who have not experienced a Mike Stern show I would highly recommend the experience.

I spoke to Mike as he was set to embark on his February run of shows in NYC, Portland, OR, Oakland, CA and Las Vegas, NV. After a 45-minute conversation with Mr. Stern, I was psyched to have had the chance to speak with such a talented and truly kind individual.

GH: Congratulations on your Grammy nomination!

MS: Thanks, man!

GH: Was that your first one?

MS: No, it’s my third, so I want to win this year! But, I don’t know, the chances are slim to none. I won’t hold my breath, but I am certainly happy about each and every nomination. Any kind of acknowledgement like that is really, really nice.

The new album Voices seems to have more of a world music feel too it?

It’s kinda like that, the music kind of went in the direction of the way people sang it. Richard Bona (vocalist and bass player extraordinaire on Voices) was West African, so right away you’re going to kind of go in that direction. You know the tunes probably could’ve had a different feel to them, but as soon as I put Richard on there, things moved in a certain direction. You kind of start feeling it in the way you do the tune, in the way that you want to arrange it.

So we demo’d all the singers and kind of realized certain things. Like it needed more percussion, or a certain kind of playing or a certain kind of vibe. And so it just kind of felt natural to go there. I’ve never done anything like it before with vocals, so it was really an interesting album for me to make. I was really happy with the way it came out, it was really inspiring for me, it was very kind of, you know, fresh.

So going into it you hadn’t really planned the direction, it just kind of came out this way?

Well, I’ve really wanted to do something with vocals for a long time, I kind of felt that some of my tunes lend themselves to that. You know some of my tunes have real quirky melodies, you know, more like linear melodies and those you can’t sing (Laughs). You’d have a tough time singing some of those (Laughs more).

But some of them lend themselves to vocals. And I realized that a lot of times when I am writing on guitar, I am playing the chords and singing the melody. And a lot of times what I do is double my guitar with sax to give it a more vocal kind of approach. And I think my sound has a vocal sound to it because I hear that way. I like that airy kind of sound for guitar. So it was kind of natural for me to do something with singers.

So how did it come together?

Kind of one thing led to another. First I asked Richard Bona, what do you think about these tunes, and I was trying to pick the material. And at first I thought I would maybe do 2 or 3 tunes with vocals and the rest be instrumentals. But then I kind of got into it and realized I had a whole bunch of tunes that would lend themselves to vocals.

I saw you at the 55 Bar in December and Richard Bona was with you that night. You guys did a couple of the vocal tunes off the new album…will you be able to do any of those tunes with Victor Wooten during your West Coast run?

Yeah, we’ll do some but without vocals. I know he sings, but we’ll do them instrumentally. It’s gonna be Victor and Dennis “the real Carter Beauford” Chambers.

How did you hook up with Victor Wooten? It seems like Richard Bona’s style of playing is similar to Victor Wooten’s, they are both very lyrical players, did that have any thing to do with you playing with Victor at this point?

I mean both those guys are just amazing musicians. Their level of what they can do and how they can express themselves musically is incredible. They can both do so much and it’s from the heart. I mean they both play just incredibly. Very much their own styles but they can both certainly get any range of emotions across from their music.

Did you put in any thought into possibly recording these shows?

Well, I thought about it, but it's something for later. It’s the first time we’ve played together, and I’d rather just play something first, and get a feel for it and maybe when it's more relaxed, then record it. Some other people had actually mentioned it. But I’m sure we can get it back together, cause then we’ll know the music, so it will be easier for everyone to hook it up.

Talking more about your playing. Your lines are very horn like, what guitar players as well as horn players were influences on you?

A lot of different people. Originally, you know, Hendrix, I mean I grew up in the sixties, so you know Hendrix, and The Cream I really dug man, cause it was like a really cool garage band kind of vibe, especially their live shit, it was like a jam.

Yeah, the power trio.

Yeah, it was that. I really liked that stuff. You know all the cats from the sixties. Santana, I heard him at the Fillmore East one time, it was more of a vibe you know. And a lot of blues players, BB King, Buddy Guy and all those players. And then I kind of got more into jazz a few years later. Like Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall, I love Jim Hall, really an amazing player. And Pat Martino, of course, and players like that, as far as guitar. And you know George Benson.

Yeah, his earlier stuff rips.

Yeah, his early stuff it really rips. But over the last 10 to 15 years I’ve been checking out horn players and trying to transcribe some of that stuff and try to learn some of that phrasing. I’ve gotten a chance to play with a lot of great tenor players in my own bands and in their bands.

I love the sound of the instrument. I love the vocal quality. I kind of go that way. When I was little I used to sing in rock bands and in a church choir. I wasn’t religious at all, I just liked to sing, and so my mom found out about this really good church choir so I was into doing that.

And I was actually in a real opera when I was like 9 years old, singing about two lines, you know it was no big deal, in Italian, and you know to this day, I still have no idea what the hell those 2 lines mean (laughs). So when I was little I was listening to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and you know Tosca (laughs).

Puccini?

Yeah, Puccini, (laughs) it was coming from a totally weird place. But just listening to all that singing leant me to want to play like I was singing on guitar. Kind of that vocal quality. And then horns are like that anyway, with all the breath in it. So I’ve really been concentrating more on that horn line kind of stuff. But I check out a lot of piano players also. From a totally different stand point, it gives me different ideas. A lot of McCoy Tyner.

Yeah, I actually checked him out at Yoshi's last week.

Great, man, who was he playing with?

Al Foster (Miles Davis alum) on drums, and Kenny Garrett (Miles Davis alum and the real Kenny G) on sax, and George Mraz on bass.

Wow, must have been burning!

Yeah, I’ve never played with McCoy. I’d love to do that at some point. I don’t know if it’s in the cards though.

I’ve played with Al Foster though, on Standards and you know when we were both with Miles, he’s an amazing drummer, he’s a bad motherfucker, beautiful, beautiful player. But that’s the kind of stuff I am trying to listen to more than other guitar players.

But of course also the guys that I came up with you know, Bill Frisell, or Sco (John Scofield), or Pat (Metheny), or John Abercrombie, or a real favorite of mine was Kevin Eubanks. You know he’s been doing that Tonight Show thing for a while but he really plays his ass off.

Yeah, we were just talking about him in the office, someone said, “Isn’t he that Tonight Show guitarist,” and we said yeah but he still rips on guitar.

Yeah, he can really play. And he still does, but it takes a lot of time. Branford (Marsalis) actually told me once that you make a bunch of money, but it’s so time consuming, which is why he left. But yeah, so Eubanks is great. And Wayne Krantz. And of course my wife is my favorite. That’s kind of true actually; I get so inspired by Leni’s (Leni Stern, extremely respected jazz guitarist and compositionist) playing, and her writing. It’s really beautiful.

Wayne Krantz is also a regular at the 55 Bar. Have you ever talked to him about possible collaborations?

Yeah, we may, right now we're both kind of doing our own things. Two guitars is a special kind of a project, as soon as you add another guitar player it becomes a whole different thing. So right now I am just trying to concentrate on things with my group. With Bob Franceschini (Mike's current tenor saxophonist), Dennis (Chambers), and Lincoln Goines who is usually the bass player.

Yeah, he’s awesome!

Yeah, he’s really great. But it is also nice to change up. At the Iridium I’m playing with John Patitucci, that’s coming up the 5th through the 10th in Manhattan. I seem to play with a lot great bass players. Actually a lot of great musicians, I mean I am spoiled as a motherfucker (laughs).


This has been part one of a two part series. In the next installation we will hear Mike's take on the one quality all great musicians possess, partying @ 55 Grand, Medeski, Martin, & Wood, and lots more. Read Part 2!

Check out: Mike Stern Tour Dates

Geoff Harrison
JamBase | Head Quarters
Go See Live Music!

Recommended Discs if you are just getting into Mike Stern:
(In recommended order)

1. Jaco Pastorius – Live in NY Volume 5: This live disc (1984) showcases an intense jam session b/w two masters of their craft, Jaco Pastorius and Mike Stern.
2. Mike Stern – Play: Stern's 2000 release with John Scofield and Bill Frisell. Modern Fusion guitar work at its finest.
3. Mike Stern – Standards: Stern lays back a little on this, but breathes new life into his Standards' interpretations. Serious Sunday morning New York Times reading music.
4. Miles Davis - Star People: Live Import of Miles Davis' from 1983 which showcases the tremendous blues playing of Davis, Mike Stern and John Scofield.
5. Miles Davis – The Man With the Horn: Mike Stern's solo on "Fat Time" ranks high on many's list for ridiculous fusion solos.
6. Mike Stern - Voices: Stern's latest masterpiece highlights his tremendous vocal phrasing on guitar.

[Published on: 2/7/02]

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