Mike Stern has been at the forefront of the jazz guitar world for nearly 30 years now. Starting with Blood, Sweat and Tears in the '70s and continuing on with Miles Davis, Billy Cobham, Jaco Pastorius' Word of Mouth Band, Steps Ahead, and many other projects throughout the '80s, Stern is considered one of the most innovative and prolific guitarists of his generation.

These Times, Stern's twelfth album as a leader, again features a focus not only on his searing lyrical guitar lines, but also on vocals and a world-oriented vibe. Players featured on the album include Kenny Garrett (a fellow Miles Davis alumnus), drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, and a string of stellar bass players in Will Lee, Victor Wooten, and Richard Bona. The group is rounded out by percussionists Arto Tuncboyaciyan and Don Alias, drummer Dennis Chambers, tenor saxophonists Bob Franceschini and Bob Malach, vocalist Elizabeth Kontomanou, and keyboardist-producer Jim Beard. Special guest Bela Fleck also adds his inimitable virtuosic touch on banjo to one tune.

I caught up with Mike Stern who is gearing up for a West Coast and Far East run which will have him playing with Victor Wooten (bass), Richard Bona (bass), Dave Weckl (drums) and tenor saxophonist Bob Franceschini at Jazz Alley (Seattle), Yoshi's (Oakland), Catalina Bar and Grill (LA), Utah State University, and a four-night run in Tokyo. Find out more about this beautiful musician and very kind individual.

GH: These Times continues with the vocal stuff you were doing on your last album Voices, but this time has a more Middle Eastern feel on a few of the tunes. Where did this come from?

Mike Stern by Oskar C. Neubauer
Stern: My wife Leni brings home all sorts of stuff, she's always been a real adventurer. When she wakes up in the morning, she's got a tambour and she sings different Indian stuff. She brought home this CD of a guy named Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Right away I heard that and it blew me away. And it turns out that Richard Bona, who plays bass and sings on a number of tracks on These Times, actually played bass on an album that Nusrat was on as well (Jonathan Elias' The Prayer Cycle), one with James Taylor and Alanis Morissette, and a bunch of others. So Nusrat is this adventurous Pakistani qawwali singer and I really dug his vibe. So I tried to incorporate his vibe onto a couple of these tunes.

GH: The title of the album, These Times, and a couple of track names seem to have a bit of a political spin on them. Being a New Yorker, how has the past couple years influenced your music? Is there a political message on the album?

Stern: Well the title represents that we're living in a time that's really unusual. If there is any kind of more obvious message, it's that the music is a positive voice. It's really one of the most positive voices we've got going for us. So no matter what sort of bullshit is going on politically the music cuts through all that stuff. So the album title wasn't so much political, but just that these times are kind of unusual and I hope that the music can translate through these times.

GH: So Victor Wooten and Bela Fleck are on the new album. What did those guys bring to the table?

Victor Wooten by Roberto Cifarelli
Stern: Well this is the first time that Victor and I had recorded together, but we'd done some gigs in the past. He's such a creative individual; he's got this amazing spark as a musician but also as a person. He's got this really amazing energy as a person. He's inspiring to just be around. And of course he always plays his ass off.

And Bela I've always wanted to play with. He's a fantastic musician. So I asked him to play and he was in town. I'd met him before through Victor down at his house in Nashville. The track he plays on, he's got a very simple part, but he did so much with it, all these different voicings and options he brought to the table. I really want to play more with him. Maybe do some standards with him. We played a bit in the studio and were doing some duo stuff together, just messing around, I'd love to do a whole album with him with the right rhythm section and maybe do a couple duo tunes as well.

Tell me about some of the other players on the album.

Richard Bona by Daniel Sheehan
Well Richard Bona is on a lot of songs with me again. He was again a big part of the record. He's a beautiful bass player and vocalist.

Kenny Garrett is on the record as well. That was really special for me, I'd like to do a lot more with him. He's got such a lyrical voice on sax, so I thought he'd be perfect to substitute for the vocals.

Jim Beard produced the album and plays piano or organ on all the tracks. He's such a talented guy. Really incredible writer, producer, player. He knows how to get so much out of you in the studio.

I had Vinnie Colaiuta and Dennis Chambers on drums. Both bring such unique styles to the drums.

This record was really great for me. Everybody plays so well on it. It's exciting to write songs and get to have such amazing musicians come in and play them. I'm really blessed to play with so many amazing players. We got a real live feeling on this album as well because most of the recording was done over a three-day period and it really captured the great vibe we had going on in the studio.

I saw you with Chris Potter at 55 Bar in NY a few weeks ago. He brought a real fire out of you.

Mike Stern in Sweden
Well thanks man. The gigs down there are a lot of fun because they're really loose. Most clubs you've got a time limit and it doesn't allow you to stretch out as much. 55 Bar is a bit like a living room, it's a place where musicians just come and hang. Players definitely take a lot more chances down there. Playing with Chris reminded me a lot playing with Jerry Bergonzi, another amazing tenor player from Boston that I used to play with. Chris has got so much depth to his playing. I've always loved playing with some of the more straight-ahead players. I find with my style we kind of bring a lot out of each other. I also just played down there with Kim Thompson, an amazing young drummer; she plays with Kenny Barron a lot. So yeah, its different things down there, its fun like that.

I know Jim Hall has influenced you quite a bit. He did a lot of playing with Bill Evans--have you ever thought about doing duos with piano?

Well I've wanted to play with Danilo Perez for quite some time. We were going to do a tune on Give and Take, I wrote a quirky Monkish sort of tune for him, but it didn't work out because of scheduling, but I'd love to do some stuff with Danilo. And more with Jim Beard as well. I do like the openness without the piano though, where there aren't as many chords, leaner a bit. It allows more space in the music. I really like trios especially.

Who are you listening to these days?

Mike Stern
Well actually, Undercurrent and Inner Modulations, the Jim Hall/Bill Evans albums, I still listen to all the time. A lot of John Coltrane, all the new bootlegs that have been coming out I've been listening to. I've always tried to get the guitar to sound like a saxophone, the really airy vocal sound. Sonny Rollins, and Miles, and a lot of McCoy Tyner recently.

And outside the jazz spectrum I've really been digging Outkast.

It seems like everyone has been digging Outkast.

Yeah, they're doing really fresh stuff. They really have a lot of heart in their music. I like so much different stuff, if it gets my heart I go with it.

Tour Dates

Feat. Victor Wooten (bass), Dave Weckl (kit), and Bob Franceschini (tenor saxophonist)
3.02.04 - 3.03.04 | Jazz Alley | Seattle, WA
3.04.04 - 3.07.04 | Yoshi's | Oakland, CA

Feat. Richard Bona (bass), Dave Weckl (kit), and Bob Franceschini (tenor saxophonist)
3.09.04 - 3.13.04 | Catalina Bar and Grill | Hollywood, CA
3.15.04 | Utah State University | Logan, UT
3.18.04 - 3.21.04 | Blue Note | Tokyo, JP

Geoff Harrison
JamBase | San Francisco
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[Published on: 3/2/04]

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