By NATHAN RIZZO // The guitarist talks before his PJF performance.
The jazz guitar legend spoke in advance of his BIAMP PDX Jazz Festival performance at Portland’s Aladdin Theater on Sunday, February 19.
After two stints with Miles Davis, six Grammy nominations, and a discography rife with the likes of Dave Weckl, Dennis Chambers, Jaco Pastorius and the Brecker brothers, Mike Stern is still trying to get better.
At 64, the talismanic jazz guitarist has come to embody several such dualities; those of a gracious New Yorker whose effervescent enthusiasm and affability belies an absolutely ferocious command of his instrument. It follows that Stern, who soared to international renown on the strength of his work with Davis on 1981’s The Man With The Horn and We Want Miles in 1982, would nevertheless spend the ensuing years studying under late jazz pianist and educator Charlie Banacos. He still adheres to a robust practice regimen, often transcribing John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock solos when not on the road, and is even pondering the resumption of studies with Banacos protégé Garry Dial.
While additional reps were no doubt in order after Stern sustained twin shoulder fractures upon falling onto a New York City street in July, it remains difficult to imagine he has much room for improvement. If the effects of these injuries are significantly persistent - Stern attests to some measure of ongoing limitation in the use of his picking hand - reports from recent sit-ins at New York’s 55 Bar suggest he is surely approaching full strength. And what strength! Where the phrasal dialects of others in his cohort - a gilded generation of guitarists no less than Pat Metheny, John Scofield and Bill Frisell - often flow from stylistic minimalism, Stern’s hallmark blowing half-whole diminished flights and Hendrix-inspired hard blues remain the standard for rock-inflected modern jazz post-John McLaughlin.
Fielding a trio of burgeoning talents in bassist Teymur Phell and drummer Kimberly Thompson - both 55 Bar session veterans - Mike Stern will perform Sunday, February 19 at Portland’s Aladdin Theater. Interviewed in advance of this appearance, Stern talks the state of his playing post-accident, speaking to the possibilities for improvement away from the instrument and recounting the recording of 2009’s Big Neighborhood with guitarists Eric Johnson and Steve Vai. Stern also relates news of a new solo record before closing with reflections on recording live and the continual nature of music education.
I wanted to start by asking how you’re feeling. Have you recovered for the most part?
Yeah, for the most part. I mean, it’s still a work in progress. I’ve got some difficulties with my right hand, but I figured out a way to play. My left hand’s good, so that’s amazing. But my right hand’s kind of messed up, still. But I’ve been playing a lot. I just got done playing a jazz cruise - it’s the first time I’ve ever done one. I was playing with Randy Brecker, Bill Evans and Dennis Chambers and Tom Kennedy. We had a ball. It was really good. I’ve also been touring since November. This accident happened way back in July.
It takes a while, but it’s coming together. The doctor said to go for it if I felt like I could deal with it. And I’m feeling like I want to play! So, that’s kind of what I’m going for, and so far so good!
This is often discussed in the context of sports, but the ability to perform effectively in the midst of injury has always struck me as a hallmark skill of top professionals.
Yeah, totally. I mean, I think it’s something sports guys know more about than guitar players. [laughs] But I know a lot of cats who have told me what they did when they had some injuries, and how they got through it. Most of it involves keeping going as much as you can, which is basically what I’m doing.
But it’s a ball to play again, man. I love playing. I was also able to teach for a while, too. To be honest, I’ve been on the road a lot in my life, and I kind of do want to stay home more and teach; I’m into that and I really enjoy doing it. I do that some when I have time, but I don’t have that much time since I’m on the road so much. So, I think that’s going to be something I do a little bit more. But I’m always going to be playing.
I didn’t know you taught. Are you affiliated with an institution the way John Scofield is with N.Y.U.? Or will you teach privately when you have time?
I teach private students, but maybe there could be something with a school [in the future]. I’ve been offered a couple of things, but I’d like something where there’s a lot of flexibility so I can still be out here playing. It’s possible to do that, but it’s just a bit more - you just have to fill a certain requirement for hours, so you kind of juggle stuff. If something comes up, you get a sub, or you schedule stuff for when you’re home.
But I’m into it. I definitely teach privately; I’ve been doing that for years and I enjoy it. I think I learn more from my students, than they do from me. But don’t tell them! [laughs]
I’ll take your word for it. [laughs] Were you able to work on music even when you couldn’t play?
Yeah! As a matter of fact, I’ve got a new record coming out in the fall. I’m actually in the middle of doing it. It’s with Lenny White, who’s playing drums on some cuts. Wallace Roney is also on a couple of cuts. Jim Beard is playing and producing it - he always does. He always helps me through these records. Otherwise, I’d never leave the studio. [laughs] I get so crazy. He kind of knows when it’s happening, and says, “Leave it alone.”
Bob Franceschini and Dennis Chambers are on there. [Dave] Weckl’s probably going to do some of the tunes, and Victor Wooten’s on there, too. Tom Kennedy is playing bass and so is Teymur Phell, who’s an amazing player from Azerbaijan - a motherfucker!
It’s a fun record, and it’s coming out well. I’m glad I was able to do it. I wasn’t sure if the recording was going to catch stuff that I’m not able to execute, but it worked out well. I was happy because sometimes it feels worse than it actually sounds, you know what I mean? Like, when I play, there are still things that I’m scuffling with my picking hand. But most people are telling me they don’t hear a difference.
In retrospect, do you think that having been slowed down like that has benefited your playing at all?
Kind of. But I’m able to play the same kind of uptempo stuff and keep the notes as clear as possible. That was always one of the things that I really was able to do - play lines that are fast, but make them really articulate. In some regards, certain things don’t pop out the same way, but they’re still there. It’s kind of like ghosting sometimes, but I’m still able to do it. And slower stuff, too.
it’s tricky. But I’ve got an amazing doctor who sees a lot of the people from the New York Philharmonic and the symphony orchestra here. He does a lot of the cats; a lot of guitar players and a lot of musicians. He’s a hand and arm specialist, and I’m really happy with that. He’s got a lot of plans for me in terms of other stuff I can do. And the physical therapy I’m going through is working, too.
You know, you have to have a strong spirit to want to do this. Even when you’re totally healthy, you have to really want to be kind of a trooper just to go on the road if you get the opportunity, which I’m certainly grateful for having had over all these years. But you have to want it; it’s not always really fun. A lot of times, the travel is a bitch and the playing makes up for it. And that’s still the case, but now it’s a little bit more challenging. But I still want to do it enough. You just have to want it enough and work it out.
I saw you were booked here to play as a trio with Teymur Phell and Kimberly Thompson. Can you talk about how you got hooked up with them?
It should be a trio. I may bring a horn player, actually; probably Bob Franceschini because I’ve got some new tunes and tunes I’ve already recorded and prefer playing. I’m looking forward to it!
Teymur came to me in New York, but he’s from Azerbaijan. He saw me at the 55 Bar, a place I play at a lot, and he said, “Let’s jam.” He said, “I really dig your music and I’d love to play.” So, I said, “Let’s play tomorrow over at my place.” I didn’t know what to expect. But this cat comes in and he’s tearing it up, man! He just sounds so great and he’s getting better all the time. He’s amazing already.
I heard Kim Thompson for the very first time in Panama at a festival - Danilo Pérez was the head. This was some years ago; one of the first ones he did. She was playing with Kenny Barron. I heard her play and went, “Who the hell is that?” It was so free and swinging. Then I asked her to play some at the 55 Bar, and we went on the road a few years ago and did some touring. She’s awesome; amazing player - really amazing. So that’s going to be fun. I hope Bob Franceschini is doing it with me, too, because he’s phenomenal. He’s on my new record and on a bunch of the other ones. But we play together a lot as a band, so I’m hoping that’s the case.
What else have you done with a trio? The Standards album featured one, right?
Yeah, yeah - that was a trio. The Standards album was a trio, mostly. Randy [Brecker] was on there, and Bob Berg was on there for a couple of tunes. But, mostly, it was a trio. Jay Anderson was playing bass - a great bass player. Man, he is a double motherfucker! [laughs] He was on this boat gig that I was just on. Al Foster was also on there. There was another bass player on one tune - badass - but I can’t think of him. Larry Grenadier! [laughs] It was Larry Grenadier. And Ben Perowsky played drums on that. That was a fun record, man. We did it in two or three days, or something like that. It was really quick, and then we mixed it. It was just one of those things.
Most of music’s great records - maybe Pet Sounds or the White Album excepted - seem to have been done like that.
Yeah, they pop out pretty fast. You know, for most of my records, I want everybody there. It’s about how much you can do when everybody’s there. If it’s a bunch of different people on a bunch of different sessions, I try to get them live. I don’t want to send files around and all that stuff. I mean, that’s ok, and sometimes people have to do it just because of logistics or the budget. But I’ve been really fortunate to - and I want to - do my records live. I mean, I’ve heard people do great stuff in different ways; with overdubs and all that stuff.
But I try to do my music with everybody in the room. It’s amazing what you can come up with at the last minute; when you’re playing with somebody and you say, “Oh, can you change this?” or “Let’s do this!” at the last minute. Or when somebody else has a suggestion. You feel it when it’s live. For this kind of music - at least for me - I certainly prefer it. So far, I’ve been able to do that for every record.
I interviewed Eric Johnson a couple weeks ago and he actually touched on that; how much of a journey it’s been for him.
We did the same thing. We did the record [Eclectic] at his place. It happened so fast, we were even surprised. We’d been playing the stuff live, and then “Boom!” We recorded it, and it was practically done. But then he goes over it and tweaks it and stuff, so that’s kind of how it went down with him. I mean, he’s done it both ways, but that record was mostly live, and he loved the fact that it was mostly live.
It’s hard for him - he wants to fix things and do a solo over. And I kept telling him, like, “Wait, wait.” On one solo, he said, “Oh man, I can’t do that. That’s one’s not going to sound good. I can’t leave that.” And I said, “Turn up the cymbal a little bit.” So, we turned up the cymbal a little bit, and everything fit right where he wanted it. And He said, “Listen! That ain’t so bad!” [laughs] Because he plays his ass off!
Most people play live, and if they want to fix a thing or two, that’s cool. And that’s what the studio’s for. Especially nowadays, where everything’s on YouTube anyways, so you’re hearing plenty of live music - more than I think should even be out there. But that’s another subject. You may as well use the studio for something, but I still like that live vibe. Then you just produce it. You add a thing here and there; fix a couple things and use the studio so it doesn’t just sound like another YouTube hit, you know? But that’s what I’ve been doing for years and it’s worked out.
Do you think the capture of a certain feel is really the core of a good session?
Totally. Absolutely. And if you want, you can fix a couple things, you know? That’s cool. But you’ve got the feel because you’re in there. I mean, shit happens intuitively. A drummer can also go a little bit crazier if he’s laying something down over a solo, or if you solo over a track that’s already there. And that’s ok for a certain kind of tune. But I’ve never done it that way, because my stuff gets freer as it [progresses] even if it’s arranged and I want a certain thing for the actual tune.
When it comes to the solos, I want it to kind of have some interaction. And there’s invariably an interaction, even if it’s not obvious. Because if you try to do a new solo over some of the tracks - the way you do it live - it’s hard to beat whatever you’ve got. It’s amazing that way. I’ve heard people say, most of the time, they can’t beat that. They just say, “Let me just fix these three notes.”
Speaking of Eric, I went back and listened to Big Neighborhood. I didn’t realize you’d worked with Steve Vai on that record, as well.
Yeah! And he was cool, too, man; he’s amazing. And it was the same kind of thing - he wanted to fix things, and he said, “Look, that’s my call.” But he left most of the live stuff because that was happening! I said, “It’s your call, you do what you want.” But we did it live, so I said to try and see if he could live with it. And he was tearing it up! I think ninety percent of it was live. But he fixed a couple of things, and so did Eric.
I feel like the instrumental rock guitar scene is subject to some measure of unfair scrutiny. Most of the core players are, at heart, real music guys. Joe Satriani studied with Lenny Tristano, Steve Vai would transcribe some of Frank Zappa’s hardest stuff, and Eric Johnson was really into Ted Greene’s chord method.
Oh man - we all are! The guy [Greene] was awesome. And Eric’s a big fan of Wes Montgomery and all kinds of people. He’s a badass guitar player; a really caring, wonderful musician and just a great guy. And Steve’s the same way. They play their asses off.
Do you think the playing techniques that guys like Steve and Allan Holdsworth have come up with will enable guitarists to precisely approximate the fluid phrasing of horn players like John Coltrane or Michael Brecker?
Yeah. And I always try to do that myself as much as I can. You know, it still sounds like a guitar no matter what you do. If you have a lot of distortion and squash the hell out of the sound, you can get a smoother sound. But I don’t want to do that too much, because I like the fact that you can hear the pick a little bit, even if it’s really fluid. And I try to use the stereo sound because I hear more air.
But I go for horn lines all the time - all the time. That’s what I’ve been doing for years; when I played with Mike Brecker and Bob Berg. So I’m into that.
Are you still studying with anyone?
I’m always studying. I’m not studying with anybody. Charlie Banacos was a guy I studied with for years; a great piano player who would just teach theory and different ways of learning harmony and different scales and all that stuff. He used to teach that to all instruments, including guitar players. So I was studying with him for years. He died about four years ago, I think.
He was amazing - an inspiration. The thing that came out of him was that the effort was the most important thing. It wasn’t even how well you played; it was about going for it. I loved that about him. And he taught that to all his students, no matter their level. It was a really beautiful way of saying something that is so important.
But since then, I haven’t studied with anybody. I’m thinking about studying with Garry Dial, a piano player who teaches all of Charlie’s stuff. He studied with Charlie for years, and he got a lot of stuff - even stuff they hadn’t covered - from Charlie’s wife. So, I’m thinking about that. He’s a friend of mine and a really good piano player. So I think I probably will.
But I’m always learning - I’m always trying to. I feel like I don’t know shit after all these years. It’s just an endless journey; a more-you-know, the less-you-know kind of thing. But I love it.