At the onset of his fifth Australian tour, Andrián Pertout speaks with Mike Stern from New York about his musical passion, and his new album ‘Play’.
“Mike Stern is a beautiful guitarist in the true jazz tradition, combining natural lyricism, fluency in diverse musical languages and seamless burning technique. He is one of the guitar greats of his generation,” writes Andy Aledort from Guitar World. Mike Stern’s illustrious musical career began under the guidance of his pianist mother, and at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, he met Pat Metheny, who further directed him towards his successful audition with 70s jazz-rock heroes ‘Blood Sweat and Tears’. An association with Billy Cobham and legendary artist Miles Davis followed, and then went on to developed projects with the late Jaco Pastorius, David Sanborn, Steps Ahead, Michael Brecker, and more recently, the Mike Stern/Bob Borg Band and the Brecker Brothers. He has been nominated ‘Best Jazz Guitarist’ by the readers and critics of Guitar Player Magazine, and both his ‘Is What It is’ (1994) and ‘Between the Lines’ (1996) albums have been the recipients of a Grammy Award nomination. The 1999 release ‘Play’ represents Mike Stern’s ninth solo album, and highlights a musical collaboration with guitarists John Scofield and Bill Frisell; drummers Ben Perowsky and Dennis Chambers; bassist Lincoln Goines; tenor saxophonist Bob Malach; and keyboardist Jim Beard.
Last time we spoke was just prior to your 1998 Australian tour, where you certainly proved to be in no lack of enthusiasm up on stage. What is Mike Stern passionate about these days? Is music always number one in your life?
MS: ”That’s pretty much it, but of course my wife is very much there too, and we’ve been married for like twenty years. But music is a big part of both of our lives, which is probably why we’ve been married for so long. Also, because we enjoy each other’s music, we learn from each other’s musical endeavours. But we don’t go on the road together generally. I mean, we don’t perform together, sometimes she just comes when I’m on the road, and she comes and visits and stuff. She plays guitar also…”
Wow, two guitarists in one house!
MS: ”Yeah, lot’s of guitarists. But it’s kind of neat, and it’s worked out great. So obviously I care deeply about that relationship, but yeah, music is very much the huge part of my life, and I love it. I love playing for people all over the world, which is really great.”
What seems evident live as well as on record is what people describe as your “seamless burning technique”. How does someone achieve this level of fluency in improvisation?
MS: ”Well, for me I kind of just put one foot in front of the other and ‘just kind of take what was in front of me and try to learn it as best I can’ – that kind of thing. And also, I listen to a lot of horn players, and I think that gives a certain kind of fluidity to the playing; if you’re going for that sound, which I definitely like, that kind of vocal approach to the instrument. So I guess I’m very much inspired by horn players. I transcribe a lot of solos of like John Coltrane and Miles, that kind of stuff, and try to get that in my playing as much as possible.”
And what is going through your mind? I didn’t time them, but last time I heard you live it seemed like ten or fifteen minute solos, which is hard to keep up!
MS: ”We stretch them, but it’s easy when you’ve got those guys, when you’re playing with Dennis and Lincoln, because it’s kind of the three of us all playing together. And in this case, after hearing Bob Franceschini, who’s playing saxophone this time – you know, we’ve been doing a lot of gigs together lately, and hearing him play is very inspiring, it gets your juices going. But I’m into that kind of thing for a live performance, I listen to a lot of John Coltrane stuff, and there are bootlegs and albums out (Live at the Village Vanguard) that are actually live performances where he’s stretched forever! But even in some of the studio performances he’s stretched out a lot. And I’ve always been into that kind of stuff. I love pushing my own abilities and my own limits, without losing the audience. You know what I mean, you wanna carry them, bring them along (laughs).”
Do you have a daily practice routine, and if so, does it happen regardless of the situation out there in the world and all the daily distractions?
MS: ”(Laughs) I try to, I try to play everyday, and practice a bit everyday, and just keep a kind of a momentum going that way. And a lot of it involves transcribing. Today I was transcribing a bit of a Bill Evans solo – you know, the piano player – and a little bit of John Coltrane, the tune ‘Impressions’. He recorded that a bunch of times, and in this particular take he plays for fifteen minutes at least, so this solo’s gonna take me for ever to transcribe. But there are so many great ideas, and Elvin Jones is just killing behind him, so it’s really amazing, the energy and the amazing ideas that they play. So I’ve been doing that today, and then the bass player came over, and we just shared a couple of tunes; we were practicing some kind of hard standard tunes. So I’ve been trying to do that kind of stuff, and I’ll read over stuff that I’ve written out, different ideas, just pretty much everyday – and then sometimes try to do a little bit of classical, sight reading from classical books. And sometimes I try to learn the pieces, but I don’t play classical with the correct technique, just enough so that I can kind of hear it, and hear the music.“
And do you publish your transcriptions?
MS: ”No, I never have. They’re just for me, they’re kind of real sloppy and all over the place. But people have told me, ‘You know, you should publish them, because you’ve done all these transcriptions!’ But I just haven’t had the time or the interest to actually do that. I just do it to learn, there’s so much I want to learn about music. And the thing is of course that the more I know, the less I know.”
That’s what happens, you feel really smart until you start learning!
MS: ”Yeah, exactly, and then you’re an idiot, you don’t know anything (laughs). But it’s great, it keeps me motivated. And I’m glad I’ve got that kind of idea about things, in that it’s endless, music is endless. So it’s very true that the more you know is like, ‘You find out a little bit more, one thing leads to another, and then you find out that you don’t know shit about that other thing.’ So there are tons of ground to cover, and you never get around to any of it. But just the pursuit of it is great. I mean, I love it, so that certainly helps.”
Although your sound is generally focused around the ‘classic jazz sound’, there are many moments of rock n’ roll in your playing. Where does the grunginess come from?
MS: ”I played that for years. I played rock for years and was inspired very much by it when I was first learning guitar. And I was kind of listening to some classical and jazz stuff that my mum used to play around the house, but then I had a whole bunch of rock records, like Jimi Hendrix, and lots of blues records, like B. B. King, and that kind of stuff. And Jeff Beck was also a big influence for me. So when I was first learning I was checking those guys out. And this is before I could read music, before I was really learning jazz at all, and I dug it, but when I’d actually sit down and play guitar at first, it was like a lot of kids – and especially in the 60s, when I grew up – I was listening to Hendrix and Eric Clapton with the Cream, the Beatles and the Stones, and trying to cut some of those licks. So that’s very much a part of me, and I don’t try to leave it out just because it’s a so-called ‘jazz gig’. I guess I’m a combination of what I grew up with, and my musical style has been shaped by what I’ve listened to. So I’m very much into straight ahead jazz; West Montgomery, Jim Hall, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, all those people, but very much influenced by rock and blues players too, so that comes out in my playing and writing, for better or for worse.”
I don’t want this to sound too way out, but do you go through a kind of transformation when changing into styles? Having seen you perform live, I get the impression that you may be very relaxed doing this jazz thing and all of a sudden you say to yourself, ‘Let’s give them a bit of Jimi Hendrix now!’
MS: ”A lot of times it’s more like what I think of when I listen to Coltrane play. He doesn’t use a distortion pedal or anything like that, but there is a point to a solo where you can feel that he’s gone to a different gear. And it doesn’t start out that way, it kind of builds to that. It may be burning on a kind of low simmer at first, and then it kind of picks up a notch – and then after a while he’s just like screaming the shit (chuckles). You know what I mean? And I love that! I think you’ve got to try to like build the solo, that’s probably the best idea. And people do it in different ways; it depends on when they start and what they’ve got to work with, in terms of where they’re coming from. Wes Montgomery did that, sometimes he’d get really cooking to the level of where you could feel him kind of peeking in his solo, and he’d start including more chords, more octaves, it’d get more rhythmic. And for me, I’ll throw in some more sustained stuff. And definitely I’m thinking more like a horn player, or a Jimi Hendrix kind of vibe. Because he’d burn like nobody! And I sometimes feel like even though their music was miles apart, John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix had a certain kind of common ground, obviously with just their energy level, and where they played from; they played from the heart, and at some point you just felt like they were so in it, and has forgotten about everything else! And I like that kind of intensity sometimes, I try to get there. I mean, in my own little humble way (laughs). It’s not like on that level at all, but I certainly like that kind of energy.”
Your last album ‘Give and Take’ featured John Patitucci, Jack De Johnette, Don Alias, Michael Brecker, David Sanborn and Gil Goldstein, while this offering includes John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Ben Perowsky, Dennis Chambers, Lincoln Goines, Bob Malach and Jim Beard. How do you choose the line-up for each release?
MS: ”The one before, ‘Give and Take’, was released a couple of years ago. And it was people that I wanted to play for a while. And I know them, and whenever I saw them it was like, ‘Man, we should do some recording some time.’ So I just felt like it would be a good thing to do for me, at that point. It’s more of an acoustic record, because John Patitucci plays only acoustic bass on that record. And then this latest record, which was released in September here, is called ‘Play’. Bill Frisell and John Scofield – we played together for ages, and I always wanted to do some more recording with them. I’ve done little things here and there with Bill Frisell, and of course with John Scofield I played with Miles Davis, we played together and recorded some with that band. But I always wanted to get those guys on one of my records, because I know them, so I knew that it was going to click right away. And I know their styles, so I wrote with them in mind. And it worked really well, it was a really fun record to make, hence the name. The record was called ‘Play’ for a couple of different reasons; obviously there’s a lot of playing going on, but the other reason is because it’s playful, it’s got a lot of fun to it, which I think is very important, to have fun playing music. It can be serious and fun at the same time, and I always try to find that balance. I don’t want to get too serious about music, and certainly there’s times when it’s a very serious kind of thing, but you’ve got to have fun with it, at least I do. There’s a lot of that hopefully in other records of mine; it’s a sense of like people are enjoying themselves playing. I definitely like that vibe when I hear that on anybody’s CD, especially with jazz. You know, when you can feel people really having a good time, and they’re not too constrained, they’re stretching out, and they’re feeling like they’ve got room to express themselves. I like that kind of vibe, and I felt like that happened on this CD.”
Where will this upcoming tour be taking you?
MS: ”Dennis Chambers is playing drums, he’s amazing, and he’s getting better all the time (laughs). And I’ve worked with Dennis for years now, off and on for about fourteen years. And he’s incredible, he’s got so much control, he can get crazy, like really rock, and then swing his ass off. He really has the whole nine yards, he’s very special, and he’s got tons of soul. I mean, it’s just ridiculous, he’s got a very incredible time feel, kind of very deep pocket. And every time I think he’s reached one plateau, he goes to another one, so he’s playing beautifully. And Lincoln Goines is on bass. I’ve come to Australia with him a couple of times, and he’s a fantastic bass player who I’ve worked with a bunch. Then there’s Bob Franceschini – this is going to be the first time for him in Australia, and he’s a great, great tenor player. And he’s played with a whole bunch of different people, a lot of jazz gigs, Latin gigs, musical director for a whole bunch of different people, some pop gigs, so he’s a fantastic musician. He’s an incredible player, and he’s got tons of vocabulary on the instrument. And we’ve just done some touring in the States, and we did some touring without Dennis actually, that was five and a half weeks in Europe with a different drummer. But now it’s with Dennis for the next couple of months, and we’re coming to Australia, back to the States and then to Japan.“
‘Play’ distributed by Atlantic Records. For further information visit the Official Mike Stern Homepage, or contact Simon Higgins, Vorticity Music, 529-531 High Street, Northcote, Victoria 3070, Australia. Tel: (61 3) 9482 4603, Fax: (61 3) 9482 1623, Mobile: (0412) 675 106. Email: email@example.com
'Mixdown' Monthly ~ Issue #74, June 1, 2000
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Mike Stern: Give and Take