Adrian Pertout speaks with Mike Stern from New York about his celebrated career, his new album Give and Take, and the upcoming tour of Australia.
Mike Stern's musical insight was initially provided by his pianist mother, and after a brief interlude with the ivories, the twelve year-old Bostonite began his lifelong exploration of the fretboard. After a period of 'artistic' growing up, he went on to study at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, where he then received the obviously benevolent privilege of Pat Metheny's guidance and encouragement. Mike soon developed not only into a guitarist of great technical ability, but more importantly also into one of soulful expression, and duly received Metheny's recommendation for the audition with 70s jazz-rock heroes 'Blood Sweat and Tears'. Two years later he was in New York with Billy Cobham, and this provided the mise-en-scène for ultimately connecting with legendary artist Miles Davis during one of his most prominent comebacks of the early 80s. His guitar sound continued to be associated with eminent musicians, and some of these include names such as the late Jaco Pastorius, David Sanborn, Steps Ahead, Michael Brecker, and more recently, the Mike Stern/Bob Berg Band and the Brecker Brothers. Give and Take represents Mike's eighth solo album, and features the impressive line-up of Mike Stern, John Patitucci, Jack De Johnette, Don Alias, Michael Brecker, David Sanborn and Gil Goldstein. Mike Stern has today come to be unanimously regarded nothing less than one of the greatest guitarists of his generation, so there is no doubt that his musical lyricism and dexterity will continue to inspire musicians for many years to come.
How did you start out in music?
MS: "I started out actually kind of when I was eight or nine years old, playing the piano. My mum used to play some classical piano. Not professionally, but at one point she almost considered a career as a pianist. She was and is a very good classical pianist, and so she wanted me to play piano, so I kind of did for a little while, and then all of a sudden, when I was about eleven or twelve years old, I kind of decided that I'd like to try some other instrument. You know, kind of my own choice instrument I guess (chuckles), and started playing the guitar, and loved it. I took some lessons, and the more I got into it, the more I enjoyed it."
Who did you look up to in your early years as a guitarist? What were your major influences?
MS: "Well, early was more rock and blues players like B.B. King of course, and Hendrix, people like that, and I liked the Cream. I still like a lot of that stuff, but it's been a while since I've listened to that as a focus. A few years later, after listening to more rock and blues players, I got into jazz stuff, and so my focus has been largely that now. Specifically, now not so much guitar, actually in the last ten, or even more than ten years, my focus has been kind of more listening to a lot of horn players. And particularly tenor saxophone players, and trumpet players, but also piano players. So other instruments other than the guitar, and trying to get that kind of phrasing on the guitar, with some of those ideas. So that is what helps me kind of keep things fresh for myself."
How would you describe your experience at the Berklee School of Music in the 70s, and to what extent did Pat Metheny influence your guitar technique?
MS: "Well, I certainly enjoyed going to Berklee, maybe 'enjoyed' is the wrong word (laughs), but it was really helpful to me because I was really self-taught before that. And I'd taken a few lessons, but I really needed to study some more, and learn more stuff in terms of you know, the vocabulary of music in general. More theory, more scales, more stuff like that. And so that really helped in a kind of way that music schools can kind of help. You know, a certain amount of it is pretty dry, and you have to take it and then make music from it. The other good thing about music schools is that there are other musicians going after the same thing, so you can get together and learn ideas from other musicians. And I studied some with Pat, and of course he was a great player. When he was teaching at Berklee he was already a really fantastic player. So I studied with him a little bit, actually just played for him, as he was more supportive. I was kind of insecure about my playing and thought, 'Well, you know, I don't know if I can play or not.' And I went and played a tune for him in his office, and he really dug it. You know, I was hitting all wrong notes, and at the end of it he said, 'Yeah man, you sound great!' (laughs). So he basically encouraged me to just play more than anything. Pat was very supportive, and actually hooked me up with my first audition for a kind of a well-known gig with 'Blood Sweat & Tears'. That was Pat that kind of got me the audition, and I got the gig, so that was very helpful. And the idea was basically that he thought that I had done enough of music school, and I should get out and play, because that's really the way you learn. And in that regard he was great, and also to play with him was fantastic.
"I guess people make mention of him because he's so famous, but probably from a teacher's vantage point there was a guy named Mick Goodrick, who a lot of people studied with, and has influenced a lot of people. Pat was certainly influenced by Mick Goodrick, John Scofield was also influenced by Mick. And I studied with him for a while, and John Abercrombie. They used to share a room together, John Abercrombie and Mick Goodrick, and Mick is an amazing teacher and player. But the guy that I think I've learnt the most from, and who is really an incredible teacher for me, and one of the best at teaching jazz, is Charlie Banacos, who's a piano player. He teaches all instruments, and I have studied with him kind of on and off for years, and he's really amazing. He doesn't teach from Berklee, he's an independent teacher, and lives up in Boston, so at this point I study with him as a correspondence course. He kind of sends me a tape with the next assignment on it, and you know, I have to write stuff out, and then send stuff back."
What memories do you have today of your association with Miles Davis during his most prominent comeback of the early 80s?
MS: "Well, I thought that was a great opportunity obviously, and the memories that basically stick with me are listening to him play night after night, and being given a chance to play behind him. He was also very supportive of my playing, because when I first played with him I said (Mike puts on an extremely shy and unsure tone), 'Well, was that OK?' And he said (Mike then imitates Miles' breathy and graspy cool response), 'Yeah man, you played your ass off!' That kind of stuff (chuckles). He really enjoyed it, and then I did something in the studio with him, and he said, 'Well, that sounds great! And we're gonna go on the road.' And I said, 'Really! Who's the piano player?' And he said (Mike then brings back the Miles touch), 'No piano, just you!' (Laughs) So of course I was scared to death, but it kind of worked out. He wanted a lean kind of sound without keyboards, which I've always been into anyway. I mean, I like that, and for years I've been into that, a spacy kind of sound. And because it's more flexible to have no keyboards sometimes, although both are good, but I think sometimes the smaller the group, the better."
The collaboration with Jaco Pastorius also features as yet another significant marker of your celebrated musical career. How did he personally effect your artistic perception?
MS: "Actually it's similar to Miles, in terms of what their essential kind of influence, that they had on me, and a lot of musicians I think. They both played and were into music that was really from the heart, and Miles didn't really care, and Jaco didn't really care what, so it could be some pretty sophisticated stuff or it could be just some down home. You know, some blues or some rock, and they didn't care if it was particularly cerebral necessarily. Not to say that that was a bad thing, but if it was simple, had a groove, and it was played from the heart, then that was the most important thing. That was really a kind of priority for both those guys, and that's kind of how they approached music, and I know that was true with both of them."
What are the spiritual and physical elements behind the lyrical 'sweet' quality of the Mike Stern guitar sound? It's obviously a combination of technique and equipment.
MS: "Yeah, it's that and it's also whatever kind of feeling you bring, or your own life experience, and I think that's true with any musician. I mean, after a while some of the stuff that you play, it's really like music is a language. And it's definitely a language of the heart, without a doubt, and I think you've gotta play like that, you really have to like playing from the heart. And probably all the tunes that we're gonna play on this tour I've written, and they have a certain kind of vibe, and a certain kind of feeling that I'm trying to convey. You know, either an exciting kind of groove, or more thoughtful, or more of a ballad kind of groove, and trying to get that kind of emotion across, which is kind of what I try to do when I'm playing all the time."
What about with regards to your set-up.
MS: "I used to kind of go crazy with that, and try to figure out what amps and what guitars I should use, and it got to be ridiculous. I mean, I couldn't even tell what was better or worse (laughs). So generally I've been using the same thing that I've been using for ages, which is actually an old Yamaha amp, a G-100 combo, if that means anything to you (laughs)."
This is a musician's magazine...
MS: "So it's cool... it's an old amp which they don't make anymore, but it's actually very good. I use two amps, and the other amp is a Pierce GR-1, which is now debunked also, with a four by twelve-inch cabinet. And then I use an SPX-90, which is an old Yamaha signal processor, and just for this harmonizer patch. It's one of the sounds, which I use as kind of a chorus effect, and it splits the sound, so it's kind of pretty stereo sounding, kind of big sounding, between those two amps. And then I have a pedal board with some distortion and little bit of delay on there (Boss Distortion and Boss Digital Delay), and that's it, it's pretty simple. And my guitar is an old Tele-style, but it's really a custom that was made by a friend of mine in Boston. (Mike's guitar was custom made by Michael Aronson and features an original 50s Fender Broadcaster neck, with Seymour Duncan PAF-style humbucker pickups in the neck position, and Bill Lawrence single coil in the bridge.) I'll be using that and a Yamaha guitar, and I'm certainly gonna do some clinics while I'm Australia."
Was the Yamaha Pacifica especially customised for you in any way?
MS: "Yeah, they copied the guitar that I've been using, which is not really a Tele, but kind of a custom Tele style. So it's not really a Fender, but it's kind of somewhere in between a Fender and a Gibson if I were to oversimplify things. And that's kind of what the guitar that they made me is, it's very similar to that, in as much as you can copy guitars. I mean, they're all very different, even if use the same wood, the same pickups, it's still gonna sound different. But the one that they made me was very close to it, and they're selling that now, a Mike Stern model, which I was of course thrilled about. And they're very patient, in letting me kind of use that some of the time, and my guitar. Which is really the same thing, it's just that I can call my guitar whatever I want, because it's not one thing or another, it's a custom guitar. So they let me use that too, and the thing about it is of course that I've been playing that particular instrument for twenty years, so I can't really change that (chuckles). You know how you get, you get used to a certain thing. And they were very understanding about that, which is great. But I was thrilled that they were interested in making a signature model for me. And they're also very nice people, the people that I've worked with in Japan and the US, and very sincere about making really good instruments. And especially the guitar line, they're getting really behind, and it's certainly showing to me, all their guitars are pretty hip. So it's kind of cool, yeah."
Tell me about your new album Give and Take and its amazing line-up. How did you choose the players and the material?
MS: "I played with Jack DeJohnette on some other albums, and I wanted to make it different sounding. I've got eight records now on Atlantic Records, and six of them are kind of more electric sounding. A lot of what I do is more straight-ahead bebop kind of stuff with a contemporary edge to it. I did a record called Standards that has kind of a little bit more of the same vibe as this record. But this has more original tunes, although we do some standards too. So I would just call those guys and try to hook it up, and try to not rehearse so much. Some of the other stuff that I do I need to rehearse a little bit more, because it's more thoroughly composed. You know, it's more arranged and stuff. Still, I think all my records have a live quality, but this one has probably more of a live quality. So we did one rehearsal, and really did the record in a couple of days. And it's with Jack DeJohnette, Michael Brecker and David Sanborn, so I was thrilled. You know, I've worked with those guys from time to time, certainly Dave, I used to play with Sanborn and Brecker, so I know those guys really well. And then Jack, as I said had played some with, and this was an opportunity to hook up, and John Patitucci too, he played acoustic bass on the tracks. So it was a great experience, and one of the more interesting things for me on this record was that Jack is on seven tunes and Don Alias, the percussionist, is on just four tunes, but just by himself. They don't play together on the record, so the tunes that Don is on is just with percussion, there's no drums on those tracks. And he plays such great percussion that sometimes you can't even tell, you know what I mean, he sounds like a drummer (laughs). He's an amazing musician, and I like that kind of sparse sound just with percussion."
What can people expect to hear in your upcoming Australian shows?
MS: "We're gonna play a bunch of tunes from some of my records, and some of the ones I made with Dennis, and with Lincoln, they're involved in it. They aren't on this latest record as you already know, but they're on other records of mine. They're both on Between the Lines on a couple of cuts, and Dave Weckl is on that record too. Actually those guys have played on a bunch of my records, and Bob Malach has played on the last couple of them too, he's the tenor player. So we're gonna play a bunch of tunes from those records, and some from the new record too. It's lose though, I mean, you get players like that, you just give them kind of an outline and then say go! (Laughs) And they play their asses off! So I'm really thrilled to have them on the tour. They're amazing musicians, and it's always fun to play with them, it's a fun vibe. You know, it's loose, and it's definitely got a New York vibe to it, everybody's very steeped in bebop. And it's also contemporary, we play funk and rock. You know, the shit's gonna rock and funk too, but it's definitely got a lot of swinging going on, there's definitely a lot of traditional stuff happening, a contemporary sound, but with a definite traditional influence that I think is most apparent if you live around New York City. I mean, Dennis lives in Baltimore, which is just really a couple of hours from New York City, he's always up here though. And the rest of us all live in New York, Bob Malach's from New Jersey, which is just across, it's about fifteen minutes from the city. So you know what I mean, it's got that vibe, it's very much a New York City kind of groove. So yeah, it'll be fun, I'm really looking forward to it. And I love playing in Australia, I've been there a couple of times now and it's always been a treat. Once you get there, it takes a minute to get there (laughs). It's a little bit of trek, but it's well worth it (laughs)."
Do you have a set future direction for the career of Mike Stern?
MS: "I don't really plan it out so much, but I certainly think about some options of things that I'd like to do. And I've been toying with the idea, and especially with a couple of the ballads that I've written, to see if I could get someone to write words, and the right person to sing. And you know, I thought of someone like Dianne Reeves, or a couple of different people. I don't know whether or not I'm gonna do that, but I certainly would like to make a live record, so there's a whole bunch of things I'd like to try to do."
"Give and Take" distributed by Atlantic Records. For further information visit the Official Mike Stern Homepage: http://rugmd0.chem.rug.nl/~lensink/stern/