An Interview with Mike Stern
A Few Words with
by Fred Jung
George Costanza used to scream and moan on SEINFELD that when the two Georges (commitment and independent) should meet, commitment George would kill independent George. In some ways, I have felt that if an artist crosses between genres of music, he or she is tempting fate. Take for example, Michael Bolton and Phil Collins. Who convinced Michael that it was a swell idea to release an album of opera arias? That had train wreck written all over it. And what has the world come to when Phil Collins has to release a big band album? But there are always exceptions to the rule and Mike Stern is the definition of exception. The guitarist has effortlessly made the transition from the rock medium to that of improvised music and made me a believer along the way. He attracted the interests of Miles Davis, befriended Jaco Pastorius, and is one of only a handful of band leaders strong enough to hire the monster drummer (and one of my personal favorites), Dennis Chambers. So when Mike was set to release his new Atlantic recording, PLAY, he and I sat down from his home in New York to talk about his career, Jaco, and how he managed to score John Scofield and Bill Frisell to guest on his latest (PLAY).
FJ: Where does your ‘story’ begin?
MS: Well, in music in general, I was kind of a, my mom used to be an avid piano player. She almost was a professional classical player, but she had a bunch of kids, so that was that. It took a lot of her time. She used to listen to a lot of music around the house, so I was always very much into music and I kind of got into, started playing the piano for a little bit and then I just decided I kind of wanted to choose my own instrument and started playing guitar. I was way into it and it felt great. For the next bunch of years, I was kind of taking some lessons but more self-taught and playing along with more rock kind of stuff and blues players, Hendrix and B. B. King were early influences, players like that. Then a few years after that, like seven or eight years, I started when I was about twelve, so by the time that I was eighteen, I was much more into jazz. I hate the label “jazz,” but I think you know what I’m talking about, Fred. I was listening to more Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall, those kind of players. Then I got more and more into that genre and just fell in love with it. My style, I guess, is a kind of both worlds. And I don’t try to fight it. I don’t try to compartmentalize my style. Even if I’m playing standards, I think you can sometimes hear some kind of influence from some of the other stuff. “Body and Soul” with a stack of amplifiers, it’s not like that. But certainly, there some of the influences from blues and from rock as part of my style and certainly a lot of traditionals in jazz too, of course.
FJ: Do you recall your first guitar?
MS: I guess the very first one was a nylon string guitar. I forget what the make was. It was state of the art (laughing). It was good enough. It sounded cool. And then I got a, actually, I got a really great guitar a few years later. I got an ES175, which is a Gibson. And then I also was into, I had a Fender guitar too. I’ve kind of settled on this Telecaster, or Telecaster style guitar, which is what I use. I use two now. One is a Tele that was made for Tele style like a Fender, but it’s not a Fender. It’s a custom guitar made for me. Somebody in Boston who used to see me play a lot when I was using a Telecaster, which was Danny Gatton’s old guitar. Danny Gatton and Roy Buchanan. Danny got it from Roy and I got it from Danny. It was an amazing guitar, but it got ripped off. When I was in Boston, some kid pulled a gun on me so, he had a persuasive argument and I let it go, which is a drag. But this guy who builds guitars used to see me play with that guitar all the time and so he made me some kind of guitar that looks like a Tele, but it’s really not.
FJ: Who knew that Boston was such a high crime area?
MS: Well, every city can be. I just got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. But since then, Yamaha has also made a signature model for me, which I was certainly delighted about. They designed it after this custom guitar that I use, so I use this custom guitar and I use the Yamaha guitar. They’re very similar.
FJ: Getting back to Boston for a moment, you studied at Berklee and it was during that time that you met Pat Metheny during that time.
MS: Well, it’s hard to say. I wasn’t really studying with Pat. We, kind of, he was teaching there and he was about twelve at the time (laughing). He was like nineteen of something. I was about twenty. I heard him play and I heard his reputation and stuff and I said, “Well, I’d really love to study with him.” And I went in and we played a standard tune and I hit all the wrong notes and he said, “Man, sounds great.” So after that, we just played. He would just come in with whatever he was writing or whatever we was working on or some tunes that he taught would be fun for us to play and we would just play. He would suggest a couple of things, so it wasn’t teaching in a formal sense.
FJ: So it was more like an instrumental think tank?
MS: We were just playing to tell you the truth, Fred. It was really just playing and he’d say, “Yeah, sounds cool.” It wasn’t so specific. He was more supportive. I think of him, he was just very supportive in helping me to gain my confidence or something in some ways. I tend to be self-critical in a lot of ways, which is useful to me. That was the deal with him. He was just really supportive. And like I said, I tend to be, and certainly was then, very self-critical in some ways, which is a good thing, a positive things in some ways because it keeps you growing. In some ways, it’s not so great because it can get you really insecure. He used to say that I had some stuff going on that he seemed to hear and it took a minute for me to kind of relax about it and get some confidence in playing. He just suggested that I play more and just push past whatever doubts I had and all that stuff and play as many real situations as possible, so he got this audition with Blood, Sweat, and Tears and they were looking for a guitar player and so he recommended me for the audition. I went and I got the gig, all the while trying to talk myself out of doing it. But then, I went ahead and did it and it was great. It was a really good learning experience and a fantastic band actually.
FJ: Let’s talk about your days with the before mentioned Blood, Sweat, and Tears.
MS: That was great for me. First of all, Jaco Pastorius was in the band for about three months, right before he joined Weather Report. He played with Blood, Sweat, and Tears. And he was killing, Fred. Larry Willis was the piano player, who is amazing. I think he is playing with Roy Hargrove. He’s played with Cannonball, with everybody. He’s an amazing piano player. The bass player, when I first joined the band, right before Jaco joined, was Ronald McClure for a while, another fantastic player. The horn section was amazing. Different cats came in and out, but they were all fantastic players. For me, it was great, but I was terrified. I was a little bit nervous to do it. After about six months or so, I settled into it and I learned a lot from that gig. David Clayton-Thomas was singing and I think he’s still got that band together. And at that time, Bobby Colomby was still the drummer and then they changed up. I was there for about two years and they changed it to Roy McCurdy was the drummer after that. He’s a fantastic drummer. Don Alias played drums for a while. He’s actually a percussionist, but he also plays great drums. He played drums there for a while and played percussion for a while. It was a bunch of fantastic players. I played rock and blues gigs in DC, where I grew up before then and then all of the sudden I was in this situation of playing a lot bigger venues and playing with that band. It can focus the brain a little bit. It got me in a very real situation where I had to deal with whatever you have to deal with in a real live situation. It was fun. I learned a lot just from the players and the whole experience.
FJ: Let’s touch on your tenure in Miles Davis’s band.
MS: After Blood, Sweat, and Tears, I went back to Boston and I was playing just a lot of more straight-ahead bebop gigs. I had been playing some before Blood, Sweat, and Tears in Boston, but much more when I went back to Boston. I started playing with this guy, Jerry Bergonzi.
FJ: Very good tenor player.
MS: Yes, he’s one of the great tenor players. He’s an amazing tenor saxophone player. The cat is killing. So I played with him a bunch and also with this guy Tiger Okoshi in a kind of more electric jazz kind of setting.
FJ: Good trumpet player.
MS: Great trumpet player. I played with him for years. Actually, Fred, me and Bill Frisell used to play in the same band. Sometimes we’d play gigs together with Tiger. We were in Tiger’s band. He played before me. I played in that band for a while. And then after that, I got a call to play with Billy Cobham about another year, just after Blood, Sweat, and Tears. I spent a year in Boston just playing with those two guys, mainly, and then some other gigs that were pretty much straight-ahead. Then I got a call to play with Billy Cobham and I played with him for about a year. I had played at this one little place in Boston. I played a gig with Bill Evans, the saxophone player, playing just some standards. Bill really liked my playing and he said, “You know, I’m working with Miles Davis now. We’re recording. We’re actually getting ready to go on the road and if some reason it doesn’t work out with the guitar player he already has, I’ll let Miles know about you and see if that works out.” I said, “Gee, that would be nice.” But I didn’t think anything of it. I thought, “That’s not going to ever happen.” So I was playing with Billy Cobham in this tour that I did close to a year and I was playing in New York City and Bill Evans called me up and actually, we were taking a break. We were at the Bottom Line in New York and Bill Evans called me and said, “Guess who I’m bringing to the gig to check you out?” I went, “Oh shit!” I guess he liked what he heard because he hired me and I played with the band, with his band for about three years. It was a fantastic experience with Al Foster playing drums, Marcus Miller on bass, and Mino Cinelu on percussion, and Bill Evans on saxophone, and Miles.
FJ: As one of the legends of this music, Miles’s persona has been subject to so much speculation. Having spent such a prolonged residency with him, you have first hand knowledge of his demeanor.
MS: He’s a great cat in a lot of ways. I mean, difficult, a little nuts, but not as crazy or as mysterious as people perceive. People write all kinds of stuff just from first impressions, but if you talked to him, he was a lot more down home then some people realized and also could be incredibly supportive. I did a gig where he got so much attention because he had been in retirement for like seven or eight years and all of the sudden he came back and he was like a superstar. I’m playing with him and playing in New York. I moved to New York because of that gig. It was an exciting time and some kind of pressure also to play with Miles. He was great. He just said, “Just play and have a ball. You play your ass off.” He was always just very supportive, the kind of thing that people don’t realize about Miles. He could be really very sensitive in a lot of ways. Obviously, I think that was his gift and also the price he had to pay for whatever his gift was. He was very sensitive. Once again, it was like starting over. It was such a special situation that I was nervous about it, and he was just really supportive about it. In general, Miles was much more sensitive and much more compassionate. He certainly had a side like that, that people never knew. If you knew him, you got that sense. And then of course, he had a more difficult side to him when he’d get pissed off about stuff, kind of like everyone else I know (laughing). That’s kind of a normal thing, but with Miles, maybe it was a little bit more extreme. He was a lot warmer than a lot of people think. Sometimes, I think, people characterize him as kind of more mysterious and a bad motherf—er, you know, this and that, but he was a lot more sensitive and warmer than people gave him credit for, at least that was the vibe I got. I always hear that in his playing, for sure. I feel like you can’t hide who you really are. If you play long enough and a chance to develop your own voice, it comes out. You can hear the gentle Miles, you know what I mean, Fred? The essence of his soul definitely came through in his playing and that’s the way he was.
FJ: The same trappings that Miles’s persona fell prey to occurred with another musician you have played with, Jaco Pastorius.
MS: He was like a really good friend of mine, an amazingly good friend of mine and we just hung out all the time, played all the time, and were kind of crazy together all the time, which was the way some of those years were. I worked with him with Word of Mouth and we used to play together constantly, just jam together, standards. He’d come over and stay in my place in New York and we’d just play a lot. I played with Jaco, as I already said, with Blood, Sweat, and Tears and when he was with Blood, Sweat, and Tears, he was just coming out of Florida. People knew about him in Florida, but a lot of people hadn’t heard him. No one ever heard a groove played that hard. He was killing. I played with his band, like I said, and it was a great experience. We were just real tight and I really miss him, obviously. He left a lot of really great music behind, but I wish he was still around because he was a sweetheart, a really great cat. Just to know him personally was great, also the same kinds of things as Miles, very difficult in a lot of ways sometimes, but he was a really great cat and an amazing musician.
FJ: Is Jaco’s life tragic in that his mark on the music may have been something much more heavier had it not been for his untimely death?
MS: I think he could have done more, most certainly more people would have heard about him if he were still around, but more than that, just knowing him as a friend, even if he decided to put down the bass, I’d still want to hang with him a lot. We were just really close friends, so on that level it’s really just a tragedy. It’s always a tragedy when someone dies at such a young age. It was a tragedy for his family and all his close friends. I think musically, there was a lot more in him and a lot more people would have heard of him. But the other side of it, Fred, is that he did leave a lot of great music behind, which is forever.
FJ: In his day, was he the best bass player in the world?
MS: It’s hard to say best or worst with anybody I think because people have their own, after a certain point, if you do stuff enough, I think you kind of have your own voice and your own heart comes out in music and it’s like up for grabs. It’s just a taste kind of a thing. Certainly, I have played with amazing players and to me on some nights, I hear them do what they do better than anybody. They’ve got their own voice so it’s really hard to say best or worst. But he was amazing. He was really amazing. One of the things that I loved about him could play the electric bass and make it sound like an upright. He definitely had that kind of a concept. When he was swinging, it was swinging. And that’s hard to do on the electric bass. I think Lincoln Goines does that amazingly well. It’s a hard thing to do, to make it sound like that and that kind of legato. He was swinging.
FJ: Throughout your career you have frequently collaborated with Michael Brecker, you were in a group with him called Steps Ahead.
MS: He has been on a bunch of my records with Atlantic Records, which I am happy about because it’s been a long stay at the same label and they’ve been cool with me. They’ve kind of let me do what I want to do. They have suggestions but no one forces my hand in terms of if I want to try something new. So that’s been great. Brecker is on about three, maybe four of mine and we’ve played together a lot. He’s a very close friend and a fantastic musician and a great writer as well. I worked with him in Steps Ahead, originally, with Mike Mainieri, Darryl Jones, the bass player, and Steve Smith. It was a really fun band. And then I worked with Mike in his band right after that. That was also a great experience. He’s like the most, in some ways, the most, of all the guys that I’ve gotten a chance to work with, he includes all the musicians in shaping the sound of the band. He definitely has his own ideas and his own concepts, but he asks everybody their opinions. If anybody has an idea he is down to try it. He is open that way. In some ways, I think I’ve learned more, if not as much, than from anybody else I’ve ever worked with. He’s just an amazing musician.
FJ: Let’s touch on your last album GIVE AND TAKE and your latest Atlantic release PLAY.
MS: That one was really, just the whole album was really fun to make because like it was with DeJohnette, who I played with a little bit, but not much. And boy, is he a special drummer, Fred. Because he plays great piano also, he’s just got a sense for hearing everything that’s going on and kind of playing around it. I guess the more, from what people have told me that have worked with him a lot, the more he feels comfortable, when he feels like the time is taken care of by all the players, he feels like he doesn’t have to play time so much. He can just color the music in certain ways and do like amazingly unpredictable things, which he does a lot of, certainly on that CD, I think. I loved the way it came out because of that, because of his playing and John Patitucci’s playing and they’ve played together some and so he felt really comfortable with John, and of course Mike is on there too. And he just plays great on that CD. But the trio stuff was in some ways the most fun that we did. So when we did the trio stuff, we did a bunch of trio stuff. I couldn’t use it all on the CD. A lot of stuff came out that was pretty good but I had to pick and choose. One of the things that we did was “Giant Steps” and we did it playing ahead and in front and then playing solos. Some of the trio stuff, I just called the tunes, some tunes that I had in mind that I knew everybody knew. Sometimes we just started playing the stuff and the tape was rolling. So with “Giant Steps,” we did two or three versions, one that was even faster then the one on the album. Actually, Jack suggested, “Just start on it and don’t play the head until the end.” So I did. We did that. We just started right from the blowing and we played the melody at the end and the vibe was really cool and Patitucci, of course, is an amazing player. That was a fun, just that whole couple of days of doing that, that record was really fun.
FJ: And that leads us to PLAY, which has the three most phenomenal guitarists of my generation, John Scofield, Bill Frisell, and yourself.
MS: Thank you, Fred. Thank you. I guess you have heard the record.
FJ: It’s is a kick ass record.
MS: Oh, man, Fred, I appreciate that a lot. Well, that was really fun for me. It was the same kind of idea that I had in min with GIVE AND TAKE. It was like, since I’ve made now, GIVE AND TAKE was the eighth record for Atlantic and this is the ninth, PLAY, I want to try to do different things. In the past, I have used so of the same people on records, and it still has got different stuff, I’m always trying to change stuff, but it was a little bit, these last to for me were a little bit more adventurous. I was using people more at the last minute and maybe it’s not the band that I have been touring with so much, that kind of thing. I still wanted to get the band that I had been touring with on this record as well, so I kind of wanted, same thing with GIVE AND TAKE, I kind of like went for it in some ways without trying to arrange everything. Just keep it kind of loose. I wanted to, it was kind of last minute, I had some tunes and I thought maybe this is the record to do one of those things that I’ve always said I want to do eventually, which is to record with John Scofield and Bill Frisell, who were friends of mine for years. I have never had another guitar player on anyone of mine. I just felt that this was the time to do that and I called Bill and Sco and they both said that they would be into it. We just kind of went for it. I had some music that I kind of tweaked a little bit and a couple new tunes that I wrote with those guys in mind and thinking, “This would fit Sco’s style great and this would fit Frisell.” It seemed like it worked out. And then I did this stuff with them and then I wanted to do some stuff with my own band, with Bob Malach on tenor saxophone and Dennis Chambers on drums and Lincoln Goines on bass. Lincoln plays on this whole CD, but the other drummer that plays with the other guitar players is Ben Perowsky, a drummer that I’ve played with a lot. He’s a great, great player. With my band, I just kind of did it on, it was one day with Frisell or a day and a half with Frisell and then a day with John Scofield and then a day with my own band. At the end of it, I tried to sequence it and it was no problem. I thought it was going to take it out of the thing of just being guitarists and maybe I should get another guitar player in addition to Frisell and Sco and keep it all in that kind of thing because it might be too defused as a record if all of the sudden there is a saxophone and not two guitars. It seemed like it worked out great. I like it better in regards to that in some ways. It’s just that it is not a guitar kind of record. I don’t really think of those guys as, I know they are guitarists, of course, but Sco and Frisell, I think of them as such complete musicians, who happen to play guitar. They are a couple of my favorite musicians too. They are just fantastic overall musicians. They are great writers and have really strong concepts on where they want to go musically and that kind of thing.
FJ: If this were a pop album, what would the first single from PLAY be?
MS: I’d say maybe the second tune or “Small World” or maybe that tune, “All Heart.” Bill Frisell plays acoustic guitar on it.
FJ: Let’s talk about someone whom you have worked with for an extensive period, a monster drummer, Dennis Chambers.
MS: (Laughing) He really is. He’s, all these guys are such good friends. That really, to me that’s so important in the music, the whole vibe. That’s as important as anything else in some ways. If there is a guys who is an absolute motherf—er and you don’t get along that well on a personal level, for me, that wouldn’t work. I couldn’t tour with somebody like that. Sometimes you hear about stuff like that where people don’t even talk to each other but they play. I couldn’t hang with that. I am certainly lucky to be playing with all these guys and they’re all such really good friends too. Dennis, I’ve known him for years. We’ve been working together for years in different kind of situations. He was in a band with me and Bob Berg. Lincoln and Dennis were the rhythm section. But Dennis, man, he keeps getting better and better, which is kind of amazing because when I first heard him, I was completely blown away. He’s got some really unique stuff happening. He’s rock solid. He’s got amazing time. His groove is really deep. It’s phenomenal. But the more he plays in this setting, he plays a lot more straight-ahead, a lot more swinging stuff. He’s really getting strong at that and what he is doing solo-wise is just incredible. Sometimes we’d play a vamp and we’d just kind of play over this static kind of vamp on a couple of tunes that I kind of wrote. I wrote them with Dennis in mind and just, kind of, a drum, a feature for the drummer, whoever the drummer is and most of the time, it’s Dennis, to kind of play over this vamp, and Dennis takes it out. It’s literally like playing a different tune over this vamp, so it’s really hard to keep the time. I feel like at the end of one of Dennis’s solos in this kind of context, I feel like taking a bow just for keeping the time. He really played like either like right behind the beat or right on top of it or in a totally different time feel and it’s so strong, so it sounds almost Charles Ives-y. It’s like two things happening at once. It’s really kind of deep. The way Dennis thinks of it, it’s so home grown. It’s so underground. It’s nothing like I’m doing this over that or metric modulation. It’s just, “Oh yeah, that’s the way I’m feeling.” It’s just like this straight-ahead kind of way of coming up with some amazingly complex shit. It’s really cool. He’s great. He’s an amazing player.
FJ: I would never have believed it if I had not seen it with my own eyes, but I have seen Dennis take a twenty-five minute drum solo. I know because I timed him. Does he take those extended solos while he is on tour with you?
MS: Oh yeah, and sometimes I want him to and then at certain time, logistically, it’s kind of a drag because you want to play longer and sometimes you just can’t. The club says that it’s an hour and fifteen for the whole thing. That’s like about a solo for Dennis (laughing). But a lot of times, we get to stretch and everybody kind of stretches out in a live setting, especially with that band. Bob Malach also is just a ridiculously great player. I’m really fortunate to have that group together and I hope to be keeping that band together for a while. There is another guy that I play with a lot who also is I think a fantastic drummer that sometimes does a gig, Richie Morales, who used to play with Brecker Brothers. He played with Spyro Gyra for a while when they were actually at the top of their commercial success, which was, he was great at that gig too, but he’s real strong suit is actually more about really playing and swinging and he can go in a whole bunch of different directions, similar to Dennis and all those guys. He’s got a lot of depth to his musicality so he’s another cat that I love working with. I’ve really been lucky to get some great musicians. I don’t know how they put up with me. Thank God they do.
FJ: Tour plans?
MS: A lot of stuff is in Europe. I’ve been doing some stuff in the States, in Los Angeles, DC, and in New York. Now I’m going to Europe with a special project actually, this bass player, Chris Minh Doky (Doky Brothers), who is from Denmark and we’re playing in Denmark and Ben Perowsky, who plays on PLAY and this tenor player, this fantastic tenor player who I’ve been working with a lot lately. That’s kind of a special project in the middle of, at the end of October, beginning of November. And then I’m going to Brazil with the group I was just talking about, with Dennis. And then it’s December. I know I will be doing some stuff at the Blue Note with that same band in February in New York. There is some stuff in the middle before that. Then we’re going to Europe in the middle of March, end of April. I’ll post all that stuff on the home page.
FJ: What’s the home page address?
MS: It’s, and by the way, I’m the only guy in the world left that doesn’t have a computer. I can’t even turn one of those f—ing things on so. I’m a caveman at heart. (www.mikestern.org) I usually post all the dates. Usually they are all posted a couple of weeks before that.