Mike Stern Interview with Jazz Guitar Life

“…musicians are really sensitive generally, sometimes overly so. But it’s a good thing to be in that kind of realm and having that sensitivity and having to practice that sensitivity all the time. You want your vulnerability to be out there because that’s how you play.”

Mike Stern

Mike Stern is a guitarist’s guitarist who hasn’t given up on the fun of playing. He continues to be one of the hardest working Jazz Guitarist in the biz and he’s always searching for new ways to communicate his harmonic and melodic ideas to a large listening public. In this interview Mike shares his story with us a he talks about his latest CD release, his past substance abuse issues and why he doesn’t take anything for granted. A very candid read.

This phone interview was conducted August 22, 2006. Check out his website at www.mikestern.org/

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JGL: Hi Michael and thanks for taking the time to speak with Jazz Guitar Life. I know you are quite busy so I won’t take up too much of your time.

MS: Sure bro, no problem at all.

JGL: Before we get started, let me congratulate you on the new CD.

MS: Thank you man…

JGL: I got a copy yesterday (August??, 2006) and checked it out and it’s excellent, like all your stuff actually.

MS: I appreciate that bro, very much.

JGL: Now this may come off sounding like a “schoolgirl crush” but I have been a huge fan of yours ever since I first saw you back in 1982 with Miles Davis at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, and then again with Miles in 1984 with you and Scofield holding down the guitar chairs…

MS: Yeah! That was fun as hell…I love John…where are you calling from?

JGL: I’m calling from Montreal…

MS: Cool. I might be up your way for the next Jazz festival (2007). Andre (Simard – Jazz Fest creator) came down to see me at the 55 Bar in New York and I may be doing the Artist in Residence although all the details haven’t been worked out yet (click here for more info). Birelli (Legrene) just did it so I’m not sure if they are going to have two guitarists back to back but he did ask me and I’d be honored to do it. I’ll try and call you if it’s going to happen…

JGL: That would be great. And speaking of Montreal, I’ve also seen you here a few times with bassist Alain Caron…

MS: Oh yeah! He’s bad, man…a beautiful player…he plays his ass off…lol…so musical and such a great cat.

JGL: Definitely. And I’ve also been to the 55 Bar to see you play. Last time I saw you was in 2003 with Lincoln Goines (bass player)…

MS: Yeah…I’m usually there every Monday and Wednesday when I’m in town.

JGL: So I guess that’s a favorite haunt?

MS: Yeah…it’s a very cool place and I always play there. I’ve been doing it for years…man, it’s gotta be over twenty years. It’s a really cool place and I just played there last night with this cat Lional Cordeau (drummer) and Anthony Jackson in a trio.

JGL: Oh man!

MS: Yeah…lol…

JGL: So let’s talk a bit about the new CD and if we still have time maybe we can talk about some other things after?

MS: Sure.

JGL: So it’s been about three years since you put something out…

MS: Exactly. I did “These Times” which is the last one and then I’ve been touring a whole lot and I’ve been trying to take my time between records so that I can promote the one that’s out there as much as possible. And it has worked for me. Plus, I’m always writing something…I try to continuously write…so I had some tunes ready in some ways for this record and some I had to change or wrote new stuff to for this project. It was a cool project…and fun. You know, I like to have fun with music. I mean, I like to be serious about it and I practice a lot. I take a lot of time and put a lot of energy into a record towards making it as good as I possibly can but I like it to have a sense of fun. I want it to be relaxed with everybody playing. I don’t want to handcuff them when they come in with a whole bunch of stuff that is unplayable, you know what I mean?

JGL: Sure.

MS: So we try and get the music out there ahead of time to everybody. Jim Beard is also very helpful. He’s produced six of my records now and he’s amazing. So with this project in particular we decided it would be best, and I always like to do this, to just follow my heart. You know, there’s this tune that this person would sound great on and who I would like to play with. With this record in particular there are at least a couple of people who I haven’t played with really at all except for little jam sessions where they are sitting in. One was Roy Hargrove who I’ve always loved his playing and then Meshell Ndegeocello and I’ve loved her playing for a long time.

So there both on this record and I picked tunes thinking of how they would sound and I knew they would be burnin’ on them which they did! And then I tried to mix and match the two drummers that I’ve played with a lot. Kim Thompson most recently because she’s a younger drummer and she’s been touring and playing with me for the last couple of years and then Dave Weckl who I have been playing with off and on for years. So I tried getting him on some stuff with five different bass players, trying to get different people on different stuff like Meshell is on one tune with Dave and one tune with Kim and Anthony Jackson is on one tune with Dave. Richard Bona is on some stuff with Kim and a tune with Dave so I try and mix it up a little bit. Oh and Victor Wooten is on a tune with Kim and that was really fun.

JGL: As I mentioned, I listened to the album yesterday and the tune that Victor is on, “Roll With It”, brought back great memories of the Brecker Brothers’ “Heavy Metal BeBop” album and that really deep old school in your pocket playing of Will Lee, that 70’s slap…

MS: Yeah! Victor is a funky mother-f**ker and he’s so amazing. He’s incredibly funky and so musical. He doesn’t overdo it. So that was really fun…and Kim has this southern thing happening with that second line type of feel on that tune which could have been done a couple of different ways drum wise but she just started playing that groove so I said “That’s a good one” and it fits. I like when people come up with their own stuff, I mean I have a definite idea of things and if it doesn’t work I’m gonna say it’s not really right for what I have in mind but generally the musicians I get can hear it and know what to play without me saying much. They kick my ass!! I feel I’m lucky to be in the band…lol! They really are such strong players, I mean it’s my band and I’m lucky to be in it…lol. But it’s really fun for me. It’s so inspiring and such a good feeling for everybody. Everybody is really supportive and just gives it their all. I mean Roy Hargrove just sounded awesome.

JGL: Oh yeah! I really wasn’t too familiar with Roy’s playing although I had of course heard of him, but he just sounded so dead-on…

MS: Yeah. He’s bad. He’s got two different things. He’s got more of a straight-ahead concept and the band to go with it and records to go with it. Then he’s got this thing called the RH Factor which is more funk and I like all that stuff but I heard him play live and it’s even more thrilling. Especially when he sat in with me, it really clicked. This was in Europe, we were doing a tour about a year ago (2005) and I kind of told him impulsively “Man You sound great! and I want you to get on this record” and he said “yeah, cool” so he was down to do it and he came in and burned it.

JGL: When the players come in to record do you just have a simple lead sheet type thing or…

MS: No no. I usually rehearse it and they get demos ahead of time and they get the music because when you do a Jazz record and especially when it is live, and I always want it to be live, it’s not like “ok, the drums do this part and the bass will come in on a different day…” It’s not that kind of record. You really want that spontaneity. So you want live in the studio and you want a good studio so it’ll sound good ‘cause that shits expensive and it’s a Jazz budget so you really have to have your shit together and you do it pretty much in three days the whole thing. Then you can go to a smaller studio and do little overdubs, like if Richard has to come in and do vocal overdubs. Or he can sometimes even do them at home. Or come in to Jim Beard’s loft space where we can actually do that stuff. It’s really funky and it’s like budget studios or NO budget studios…lol. But it works great for stuff like that. And if I have to do a little guitar part or something like that I don’t need a big studio. Like with the slide guitar stuff on that tune “Texas” I did some of that as an overdub and it’s cool and came out really good. But if you want to put drums, bass, my live guitar, Roy Hargrove playing live or Bob Franceschini who plays tenor on most of the tunes or Bob Malach who is also a tenor player, when you put those guys on a record you gotta have a studio and you want to have them play all at the same time so you get those sparks and the conversations between the musicians live, you know, the spontaneity which I always want to do for every single one of my records. So you gotta hope that everyone knows the music so I try and get together to rehears with everybody and certainly the rhythm sections and run it by them and call them on the phone, “Did you get the demos? Did you learn this and this? Can you play me a little of what the vibe is? Let’s get together and rehears.” So we do all that stuff and you kind of know that everybody knows the stuff and can be flexible with it. And then sometimes we change it on the date.

JGL: Really?

MS: Yeah. There were a couple of tunes, like “Texas” with Meshell and Weckl, we changed some stuff on the arrangement last minute on the date, different from the demo because it just worked better. So sometimes that happens. We keep it really kind of like a jam atmosphere but with everyone knowing the tunes. So it’s not just lead sheets, but lead sheets and demos and stuff. And by demos I mean just with a drum machine idea. Some don’t even want the drums on there. Some people want to hear both the idea with drums and without and the drummers usually don’t want any drums on there. They want to make up their own stuff so they can figure out their own particular way of doing it. And then I send everything to everybody involved and then try to get together with everybody.

In this case, Weckl and I played some gigs in LA so he knew some of the music, I kind of played him some of the music, but that was months before so I didn’t really get a chance to rehears with him. But he came in and we rehearsed in the studio and he just burned it. But he already had the demo and Weckl is so caring that he learned all the music and recorded his part over the demo and kind of said “Is this cool?” before doing it live. And it was really close, pretty amazing, so then we went for it and if I had to change something in the studio I would ask him to change it and we would just do another take but we would all play together which gave it what I wanted, that live feeling. And I played a lot with Kim. With Kim and Chris Minh Doky we were on the road a lot and we rehearsed a lot and really knew the tunes so some of those tunes went down right away.

JGL: Actually, this was my first time hearing Kim and Chris and boy do they just lock it in.

MS: Yeah. They just burn. I’m very lucky to be playing with some great, great musicians like Lionel Cordew, who is another guy I want to record with. He’s an amazing drummer. We have a fall tour (2006) coming with me, Lionel and Anthony Jackson and we’ve been playing a lot. He’s also going to be doing a bunch of gigs with me in the states and he’s just an awesome drummer.

JGL: Cool. With all the great players you have played with, I have often wondered how difficult it is to keep egos in check. It’s not like a pick-up band or young cats just out of Berklee. I mean, you are playing with the best of the best who have outstanding established careers, reputations, their own tunes and so on. It amazes me that you can get everyone on the same page without having to deal with egos or musical baggage, where it just becomes a group of friends getting together?

MS: There’s a lot more of that than the other usually, and in the world of Jazz for sure…probably in other worlds as well. Sometimes the ego stuff exists, but I haven’t come up against it. It’s usually a really good vibe from everybody. Like Meshell was so cool and so sweet and amazing and deep. She is so deep. She hits a note it comes from some place deep and she has got an amazing kind of intensity with the simplest part. Give her the simplest part and she just gets into it so soulfully and her touch and her time feel are just really exceptional. So it was really fun to watch her work and to work with her. She’s really special and she was completely cool, really sweet.

Same with Roy Hargrove, he was a bad-ass from the top. He came in and just burned the shit. There were some really hard melodies and he stayed around to fix things at the end of the session, you know if something need fixin’, punch in a little phrase right here and that kind of thing. Especially for the tune “Who Let the Cats Out”, the title tune, it’s got that crazy blues head, real fast and it’s really hard to play especially on the trumpet and he got most of it right away. And he hung out and made sure everything was really cool. He really put in a lot of time and a lot of feeling. And I told you what Weckl did and Kim Thompson put in a whole lot of heart and soul into it. All the bass players were cool and Richard Bona is always slammin, he’s always there. I’ve done a lot of gigs with him and one recent DVD is out, Mike Stern Live…did you hear that yet?

JGL: Actually I just heard about it a couple of days ago.

MS: It’s a DVD that I did in Paris and it’s called Mike Stern Live and it’s with Dennis Chambers and Richard Bona and Bob Franceschini and it came out really nice. I mean it’s not a Hollywood production but it came out good. They had a bunch of cameras there not just one so it looks professional but it’s very live. I really dug it in that regard. You can really hear the ambiance, the room sound, everything, and the mix came out pretty good so everybody was happy with it and playing with Richard was just as fun as hell. We’ve played a lot together so we have a hook-up automatically and there was no problem on this record. We rehearsed the stuff at his place and we actually played some of the stuff live, me and Kim and Richard at the 55 Bar. So that took care of itself. And Anthony and I have been playing with some too at the 55 Bar and we’re gonna go on the road a little bit and he just nailed everything.

JGL: I was actually pleasantly surprised that Anthony was on the new record.

MS: Yeah. He’s on an earlier one called “Odds or Evens” and he played his ass off on that one and I haven’t played with him for years since then but we always talked about it so now we are playing more and he’s kind of putting the word out that he wants to play more and go on the road and all that stuff so I said “Great! Let me grab this cat!” He’s amazing and it’s really fun.

JGL: Speaking of the new CD, I have to ask you, is that a harmonizer you are using on “Leni Goes Shopping”?

MS: No no, that’s actually Jim Beard’s harmonizer on the synth. That’s a cool little thing…lol. It has these cluster voicings built into it so we wanted to use it a little bit on the head of that tune and it’s a quirky tune anyway. Jim is so special, as a producer and as a player and a writer, he’s just phenomenal. I can’t say enough about him.

JGL: I have Chroma, which I think is the only album…

MS: Yeah, there was only one. But he also did his own records which you should check out. Don’t be put off by his covers…he’s a little eccentric…lol…the sweetest guy in the world but his record covers are strange but they’re funny you know. But his music is really deep, really amazing. He’s a special guy.

JGL: I’ll definitely have to check him out. One thing I noticed on the new CD is that you are playing a lot more rhythmic parts and complimentary lines in the background than I have normally heard you play I the past.

MS: Yeah. Like on “Roll With It” and “Texas” with the slide stuff. Yeah, I’m into that. I’m starting to get more and more into that. I’ve done little rhythm parts on my own CD’s but wanted to keep it to a minimum as I do now. I don’t want to do it too much and layer a whole bunch of voices you know…it’s more like rhythm parts. But I’m getting more adventurous with it, with the wah-wah kind of sounds and slide sounds. Stuff that I do anyway and I wanna kind of put in stuff that the music calls for. And so yeah, I did more of that and it was really fun and the more I get into it the more I like to do it. You know, you get more ideas for it.

JGL: Sure. But whenever I see you live it’s usually with a pared-down group like a trio or quartet…

MS: It’s usually a quartet now but sometimes trio as well. At the 55 Bar it’s always a trio. And we can play all these tunes…but they are kind of conceptualized more and more to what I’m playing live. Like some tunes I have written you really need keyboards and you need extra voices for the extra stuff and you can always add stuff on simpler tunes but I also like the fact that some of these tunes carry themselves just with bass and melody.

JGL: Exactly…that’s the true purity of a tune if you can just play it on an acoustic guitar and still hear the pure essence of what makes that tune special.

MS: Yeah. I’ve always liked that…that song form where you really only need two lines like…for lack of a better term counterpoint where really, those two lines are the tune to the point where you feel that you don’t even need chords, the harmony is implied in the two lines. I’m kind of trying to write more and more like that. And sometimes also, more and more thinking about trio possibilities. Because I like to do that too, and sometimes I write heads that are really hard to play and you kind of need another guy there, another horn player there, which I do also. And even if you nail them they just don’t sound the same. Some tunes that have simpler melodies you can kind of pull the whole thing off as a trio and I like that idea too. But there are times when I go with whatever I’m hearing and kind of write it and then figure out how I want to deal with it later. And maybe some tunes are written and they are just not as playable live. There are a bunch of tunes on my very first record for Atlantic, Upside Downside, that come out cool but they’re not playable live in a quartet situation because they really need a keyboard. They were conceptualized that way and you really need the keys to fill it in and I’ve done some of them in a quartet situation but they really need a keyboard. But some can be done both and a lot of them I do try and think about paring them down to the bare bones where they could be done by just three people.

JGL: Speaking of Upside Downside…which I bought in…what was it…1987? F**k man, it’s been a long time…

MS: Lol…yeah…it’s been a while man, I’ve been doing this for a long time…lol…and I’m counting my lucky stars that I’ve been able to do it.

JGL: I can imagine. Actually, using the cat metaphor and the whole nine lives thing, you’ve been very lucky in that you have had at least two lives so far given the personal issues you faced in the ‘80’s.

MS: Yeah man! It’s true…lol…at least I’m up to two. I don’t know if I have nine in me but I definitely have two…lol…and I’m certainly grateful that I have been able to do this. Do my own music and play with my own band. It’s definitely been with a lot of effort and I’m so grateful that I am able to do it ‘cause there are so many people who deserve to do it and who can’t do it for one reason or another. And it’s something that I’ll never take for granted. It’s been an honor to be able to play in different cities, different countries and with different people and to even play gigs and have people come to those gigs. And to be able to do my own records is an honor, without sounding too corny about it, it really is, and I don’t take it lightly at all and I am very grateful for it. You were mentioning the two lives kind of thing…that’s something I’m definitely grateful for, that I was able to get sober ‘cause that wasn’t a slam-dunk either you know. I was really deep in the other shit and getting high in every way possible and deep into as you can imagine without going into detail but it was all day long with everything out there and I got really strung out…and for years. It took me years to learn how to play music sober. I had never really done it since I was about 13 years old…I had never really experienced played music sober. I had always had a few drinks in me or I would smoke some pot or I’d get into some deeper shit. So for about twenty years I was always high. Miles used to say…well, someone in the band asked “where’s Mike?” And someone replied “he’s probably getting high someplace.” And Miles said (in a hoarse whisper) “Mike don’t get high, Mike stays high”…lol…he knew what was going on, and I was really crazy in those days so I’m really grateful to be alive.

Life for me anyway is so much better. For me It wasn’t like I had an alternative anyway. It wasn’t like I had a couple of drinks a night, which is totally cool. If I could that I would be doing it. It wasn’t in the game plan and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted a few bottles as soon as I got out of bed and from morning to night. Then I’d go and get high. So when I finally cooled out it took a while, a couple of years of really going slow and trying to find my footing. And then things got so much better for me.

JGL: And it seems that the Jazz community in general welcomed you back with open arms…

MS: Yeah. I got a lot of support. Musicians are so…their gig…and no one really talks about this, but you really have to wear your heart on your sleeve to play music…to play any kind of music to a greater or lesser degree depending how much you put into it. If it’s creative music and especially if it’s your own gig, it’s kind of what you are asked to do…you put your heart out on your sleeve. And musicians are really sensitive generally, sometimes overly so. But it’s a good thing to be in that kind of realm and having that sensitivity and having to practice that sensitivity all the time. You want your vulnerability to be out there because that’s how you play. So I feel when you go through some tough times emotionally and trying to readjust like I had to when I got sober, I got some immediate support from cats…cats who maybe were still dipping and dabbing and doing some stuff themselves but they still gave me a lot of support which was beautiful and means so much.

That’s why music is so great. It’s always a positive thing. It’s certainly never a negative thing, even if it’s music you hate. It’s just music! It’s harmless! At worst it’s harmless and at best it’s great. It’s really just an amazing place to put your energy and your heart and people that are involved, even though they may be dealing with their own shit, you know, the good and bad sides. But generally, it pushes you and the people getting together to play music pushes you into a positive direction invariably, just by the nature of what it is. And the world needs more of that now than ever.

JGL: Tell me about it. When you mentioned Upside Downside it reminded about something you said in an interview that you worried about “being a fraud” and that with the next album people would be onto you. Do you remember saying that?

MS: Lol…yeah, yeah!

JGL: Has that changed at all?

MS: Yeah, it’s changed somewhat, although, I have a built-in super hyper critical thing about my own playing. And now I am kind of re-learning how to listen to that voice because I didn’t know. I couldn’t hear if the music was good or not so I thought “well, if I can’t hear if it’s good then it must suck!” Now I’m feeling like I’m not a good critic. I can’t tell if my playing is good or bad so I take other people’s word for things now…and I want the feedback ‘cause that’s how I learn.

Like when I did the DVD with Richard Bona, Dennis Chambers and Bob Franceschini, I heard it once and I couldn’t tell. I asked “Is that good?” If it’s my own stuff I can’t tell if it’s happening. I know that everyone else sounds great on it. That’s easy for me to tell…but when it’s involving myself I just can’t tell. So now I say “let me stop judging myself, let me ask others what they think.” So I asked Richard and Dennis and Bob… and they said that the “shit was slammin.” And they’re watching it for their own shit…to see if they’re any good…lol. So now I’m trying to get over the hyper-critical stuff and work around it. Now I know that I work hard on all my records, I really have and sometimes when I get distance from the and listen to them after ten years, like I did recently with some records I mad a long time ago, I’m pleasantly surprised. And actually all my records are now being reissued by Warner Music Group from Atlantic Jazz which had been on the shelf. So my records have been licensed to a company called Wounded Bird and they are very interested in licensing the records intact which is very expensive. But they are reissuing all of them which is good and at the end of the day I am proud of all of them. I’m proud that I got some great players to play on all of them and I know that I put a lot of heart and soul into them, that’s for sure, that much I know. So I’m proud of all of them and I want them to be out there.

JGL: For sure. And you know, you received three Grammy nominations, and hopefully four with the latest one.

MS: Yeah…you never know…lol…and now at least when people are looking for my records they can find them which used to be frustrating when they couldn’t. Just one person looking for a copy, that they had heard my music and really dig it and wanna buy a copy, that means so much to me. When just one person comes up to me and they like your music it’s really something and it doesn’t get old for me…it does not get old. It really means a lot ‘cause something has touched them in what you did and that’s deep so I never take that for granted either. And that happens to me a lot just playing around. It doesn’t have to happen with a million people, it could just be one or two and that’s a beautiful thing so I am really glad that these records are going to be available. And anything else that happens like Grammy nominations, of course that’s a thrill, and it’s supportive of your work in a way but not anymore so than that one guy coming up and saying I dig your work. For me it almost means the same if you know what I mean.

JGL: Most definitely. Speaking of old records, do you know that there is a Japanese import called “Fat Time” which is basically your first record “Neesh”?

MS: Yeah! I know about that. I just found out about that. It’s kind of a cool record. I hadn’t heard it for years and I was listening to it and Dave Sanborn sounds terrific on it. He plays his ass off on that and I was all f**cked up on that record. When I did Upside Downside I was sober and I was gut sober for all the Atlantic recordings but on Neesh I was like “Woooof”…they were lucky to have gotten me into the studio and it still came out cool…it has a vibe on it and the whole band sounds good. It’s got Victor Lewis on drums and Tom Barney on Bass and Hiram Bullock played on it and produced it so it’s really got a cool vibe. I did that one back in the early ‘80’s, ’82 or something like that. Yeah, so anyway it was news to me. I was in Japan and I saw it and I was like “where did they get this from?”

JGL: Lol…well Mike, I know you’re on a tight schedule so I’ll let you go. It’s been a pleasure talking to you and I look forward to seeing you at the Montreal Jazz Festival in July.*

MS: Thanks Bro’ and I look forward to seeing you as well and thanks for doing this with me.

JGL: My pleasure. Take care.

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