Mike Stern – Push It To The Limit
New York jazz fusion guitarist Mike Stern has worked with Miles Davis and Steve Vai. As he tells Julian Piper, the most important thing is that the music has heart
Sometimes it seems that John McLaughlin’s got a lot to answer for. In the wake of his adrenalin-fuelled guitar wipe-outs during the ’70s, to many of us ‘jazz fusion’ became something of a strange, feral beast. But if you’re ever kicking your heels on a Monday night in New York, then try checking out Bar 55, a poky prohibition-era basement club in the heart of Greenwich Village. If you’re in luck, and he’s not touring, you might just get to hear the amazing Mike Stern.
His is hardly a household name, but with a career that’s seen him work with Miles Davis and just about every major jazz name on the block you don’t need to be a genius to figure out that Mike Stern is something pretty special. And if that doesn’t fire your imagination, take note that on his last album Big Neighborhood, both Eric Johnson and Steve Vai took time out to record with him.
Rarely pictured without his custom-made Yamaha, Mike Stern’s staggering playing fuses the fire and the rock sensibility of Jimi Hendrix and the sonic technical complexity of his other two heroes, Wes Montgomery and John Coltrane. The result is a supercharged version of where Stevie Ray Vaughan might well have ended up had he followed his jazz leanings when he cut tracks like Riviera Paradise. Now Mike Stern’s latest album – aptly entitled All Over The Place – sees him reunited with a host of old sidekicks including Randy Brecker, Dave Holland and Dave Weckl, ignoring musical boundaries and moving seamlessly between rock, swing, funk and jazz.
Undaunted by a late night out playing with Randy Brecker’s band, and brushing aside our apologies for calling him too early in the day, Mike begins by explaining just how he caught the jazz bug.
‘I grew up in Washington, DC and started out listening to Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck and a lot of the blues players,’ he explains. ‘I began by playing along with the radio – mostly Motown and soul music, but my mum also used to play jazz records around the house. I fell in love with the music, and I would steal away to my bedroom and begin learning to play the tunes by ear. Pretty soon, though, I got lost, I just couldn’t keep up. That’s when I realised I needed to study some more.’
At 22 Mike began studying at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, a musical proving ground which counts Steve Vai and Pat Metheny amongst its famous alumni. ‘I went there very much as a blues rocker, but I was lucky enough to get Pat Metheny as my tutor. He was younger than me, but he was already amazing. I felt he was one of those guys that when he first picked up the guitar, he could play anything. I guess he heard something in my playing that he liked, and we’d sit and play tunes that he was working on. At that time he was playing gigs around Boston with Jaco Pastorius, trying to get his stuff together.’
So did Stern feel at that time that rock music was too restricting? ‘Well, I just liked the open instrumental jazz I was hearing; it was music with lots of space for solos and the chance to express yourself by jamming,’ he muses. ‘I’d always liked Cream and that’s all they did… jam! But jazz had even more room for that, and I loved the inter-reaction you feel playing off other musicians. Rock music can be restricting, the songs are usually shorter, and there’s vocals… but I loved the way Cream stretched everything out.’
In 1975, at Pat Metheny’s instigation, Mike auditioned for Blood, Sweat & Tears. Something of a musical enigma, the band had originally played an unlikely blend of jazz, rock and psychedelia, but were now firmly rooted in the jazz fusion camp.
‘Pat said that I should audition, that I sounded great and should really give it a try. I said “What do you mean? I can’t hardly even play!” His faith in me was a real surprise – I didn’t feel that my playing was fluent at all. I felt pretty self-conscious, but I went along thinking “Well, this’ll be a great opportunity to audition with a great band… but I won’t get the gig.” I was shaking all over, but somehow they liked me.
‘It taught me that you should always go out for things. Some will work and some won’t… but never be too critical of your own playing. Let others decide that!’
Archive film of Blood, Sweat & Tears in action at the time shows Stern playing a Fender Telecaster, a hybrid instrument made out of ’50s and early ’60s parts that had once belonged to Danny Gatton. Mike relates the sad story of how he and the guitar eventually came to part company…
‘Danny was a friend of Roy Buchanan who’d originally owned it, and Danny had done all manner of weird things like melting wax crayon around the pickups. He said “Give me $500 – I need to buy a new car.” On the way home from a rehearsal one day, a guy stuck a gun in my face and asked for the guitar. The argument was definitely on his side! I searched all the local pawnshops the next day, but had no luck. Had I just given him some dope, he would probably have been happy… and I would still have the guitar!’
While working with Blood, Sweat & Tears, Mike Stern met up with virtuoso drummer Billy Cobham, and enjoyed another lucky break when he was poached by Miles Davis. Wasn’t that a little… scary?
‘Hell, yeah,’ he laughs, ‘but everything was! Miles was just Miles – he was such a big influence, really supportive and encouraged me. He’d talk about Charlie Parker one morning, then late afternoon he’d be talking about Jimi Hendrix with just as much excitement – amazing guy!
‘There were no keyboards when I joined, so the band had a very open sound and it was a lot of fun to play in. Eventually I left, pretty burnt out, but I rejoined two years later, by which time Miles had brought in two keyboard players. The whole sound was a little more mainstream, which I found frustrating.’
It’s no surprise, then, to hear Mike’s a great believer in spontaneity. On All Over The Place he followed his usual plan by providing players with demos but playing live in the studio.
‘I like to push it to the limit,’ he explains. ‘I always have a clear idea of who I want to play on a particular track, and I just go with my gut feeling.
‘You want it to be loose, too. You want to have everyone playing and reacting to the solos; so many records are made by sending the parts to someone and they record it on their own, but I prefer the possibility of having things change at the last minute.
‘On Big Neighbourhood I knew it would be a cool idea to involve Eric [Johnson] and Steve [Vai]; I just sent them demos so they could hear the material in advance, and flew out to Austin and Los Angeles.
‘It was a lot of fun – both Steve and Eric had learnt everything totally beforehand, and were really prepared. But music is endless… the more you know, the less you know. I can appreciate someone like Buddy Guy who’s a really great blues player as much as George Benson. Music doesn’t have to be a science project. If it gets to the heart, then it gets me.’
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