Guitar aficionados have been following Mike Stern’s trademark bop ‘n’ roll ever since he cranked out the scorching licks to Miles Davis’ “Fat Time,” a nickname Miles bestowed on the fiery fusion guitarist several pounds ago. Back then, circa 1981, Miles used to admonish Stern to “turn it up or turn it off.” And the 28-year-old Berklee College of Music grad-a onetime member of Blood, Sweat & Tears and Billy Cobham’s band-obliged with searing, distortion-laced fretboard abandon, dubbed “chops of doom” by colleagues and scribes alike.
But in his heart of hearts, Stern wanted to “walk on eggshells” rather than “kiss the sky.” As a leader in his own right, he was able to pursue that gentler Jim Hall-influenced aesthetic on at least a few numbers from each of his Atlantic Jazz albums, culminating with 1993’s brilliant Standards (And Other Songs) featuring drummer Al Foster and bassist Jay Anderson. He revisited that more precious, interactive territory in 1997 with Give and Take, a sparse, swinging project with drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist John Patitucci that earned Mike the Orville W. Gibson Award for Best Jazz Guitarist.
For his ninth release on Atlantic, Stern engages in a scintillating six-string summit meeting with fellow guitarists John Scofield and Bill Frisell. The aptly-titled Play allows for plenty of stretching and conversational interplay by three of the most influential guitarists of their generation.
“They’re two of my favorite musicians who just happen to be guitarists,” says Stern of his colleagues, both Berklee grads. “It’s been interesting to watch them try different things over the years and still keep their own unique musical voices. And that has certainly inspired me to keep on doing that myself. So it was great to finally get a chance to do a project like this. We’re all really close and have a long history together so that was naturally a big part of it-the fun vibe in the studio. And I think the music came out sounding like that-kind of playful.”
Stern and Frisell first met at Berklee in 1971 and have maintained a close relationship ever since, with some significant interactions along the way. “I met my wife Leni through Bill Frisell,” says Mike. “And our two original cats, Wes and Jimi, were kittens from Bill’s cat Sylvia. So we have a long history personally. We used to play together literally every day in Boston when we were both going to Berklee. I used to drag Bill over to my apartment or drag myself over to his apartment and we’d play standards all day long. Then we played some gigs with [trumpeter] Tiger Okoshi around Boston and did some other gigs around Boston with [saxophonist] George Garzone or with just two guitars. So we’ve played together a bunch.”
His history with Scofield is equally deep. The two guitarists met in Boston and later played together in New York during the early ’80s at the now-defunct 55 Grand in a band led by bassist Peter Warren. Stern was a member of Miles Davis’ “comeback band” at the time and eventually Scofield was recruited into the group alongside Mike for a formidable two-guitar attack. Their chemistry together can be heard on Davis’ 1983 release, Star People (Columbia). They appeared side by side again 12 years later on the late drummer Motohiko Hino’s It’s There (Enja), a 1995 collection of Led Zeppelin tunes including “The Rain Song,” “Dazed And Confused” and “Stairway to Heaven” that allowed both guitarists to dig into their rock roots with a jazzy sensibility, holding nothing back on either end.
Stern says he wrote the material to Play with each of his fellow guitarists in mind. “I picked tunes that would really fit with those guys. From there it was just a process of trying to avoid overwriting so that we could just relax and play. It all came together kind of spontaneously and last minute.”
Logistically, there were some obstacles to pulling off this all-star collaboration, as Mike explains. “At the time we were recording, Billy couldn’t come out to New York so we used some frequent flier miles to fly the band [drummer Ben Perowsky, bassist Lincoln Goines, keyboardist-producer Jim Beard] out to Seattle and record there. I went out a day early and ran through a couple of things with Billy and he was incredibly patient in trying to decipher my hieroglyphics. You know, I can make like the easiest tune seem like Stravinsky. Most of my charts are kind of messy…little arrows here and there, different symbols and that kind of thing…stuff written on the back of matchbooks and things like that. But he kind of figured it out and translated it into his own charts so it was more user-friendly.”
They did four tracks with Frisell in Seattle. “I think of him coming from a more pianistic place, like a piano player on the guitar, in a lot of ways,” says Stern. “And a tune like ‘Frizz’ is a blues which very much suits Billy’s kind of angular, humorous style of playing,” explains Mike. “It’s more Monkish than the other tunes. He’s really got that quality happening on the guitar but he’s also got a very lyrical side to his playing, which you hear on ‘Blue Tone.’ That tune is very lyrical but it’s also got a real mysterioso vibe at the same time. I definitely had Billy in mind for that tune.”
The raucous closer “Big Kids” is rockified romp that features Frisell in an uncharacteristically cranking context. “That was the most fun for me in some ways,” says Stern, “That’s got a little bit of a Meters vibe in a weird way but it’s also kind of quirky and not typical at all. Billy really ‘goes left’ on that tune and it’s really cool. To me, it sounds like a bunch of big kids doing what they do best.”
“All Heart” is a beautiful ballad underscored by Frisell’s subtle acoustic overdubbing. “Originally, I wanted us both to solo on that tune but then it went down with him playing electric guitar and just kind of coloring and comping and putting down his vibe behind the melody. Ultimately, the solo isn’t so important, it’s the vibe of the whole thing that really makes the tune.”
Scofield weighs in on three tunes: the opening minor blues “Play,” the N’awlins flavored funk of “Small World” and the boppish “Outta Town,” which is based on changes to “Have You Met Miss Jones.” As Stern puts it, “Certainly, those tunes seemed like they were naturals for Sco. I’ve heard him play those grooves a lot with his own band and he just tears it up here.”
Stern’s current touring band-Bob Malach on tenor sax, Dennis Chambers on drums and Lincoln Goines on electric bass-is highlighted on three separate tunes. “Link,” written from the bassline from Cedar Walton’s “Bolivia,” is named for bassist Goines. “Goin’ Under” is a slow blues that Mike says “just kind of fell into place in the studio.” And the hard-hitting “Tipitina’s” is a reminder of a special gig in the mid ’80s with his late comrade Jaco Pastorius. “We did a gig together at Tipitina’s in New Orleans a long time ago and [former Meters drummer] Zigaboo [Modeliste] sat in. We actually didn’t play New Orleans kind of music, we played more James Brown influenced funk. And I figured that would be a cool title for this tune because it has a little bit of a New Orleans groove to it in the beginning but then it gets into this heavier funk groove with Dennis leading the way. So the title was kind of personal to me…not so much about the club as the night that I played there with Jaco.”
Assessing his own approach to the guitar since his 1986 debut as a leader, Upside, Downside, Stern says, “Well, it’s certainly evolved. I think if you’ve been playing for a while you eventually get to a point where you have a core style, with distortion or without distortion, no matter what the tone of the amps you might use or whatever…your touch and your style is going to have some things that are just you. And that’s a good thing. But I always try to move it along and try to evolve. And I think if anything, the stuff that I’ve been doing a lot of years now, which is really checking out horn players and piano players and trying to get those kind of legato lines happening in my playing, has progressed. That’s been my focus for practicing and I’ve gotten more of that stuff into my playing because I’ve just been doing it longer.”
Stern credits Boston jazz guru Charlie Banacos with helping him make the stylistic leap. “I studied with him when I was living in Boston and I’m still studying with him via correspondence course. He’s a piano player so he has a different way of teaching than a guitar teacher would. Studying with Charlie has helped me get outside of guitar-y type things in my own playing. It makes it more fresh for me. Ultimately, you can also play some of the same stuff over again and just play it like it’s the first time you’ve played it. You just have to lean into it more and really mean it.”
The guitarist says he continues to spend a lot of time transcribing horn lines to get deeper into that legato flow. “Just listening to classic solos by Miles and Wayne Shorter really affects you. But for me it really helps to get inside of it by transcribing some of the lines. It’s not memorizing it verbatim, it’s just absorbing some of that stuff unconsciously. It gives you some new input, maybe a slightly different way of looking at things, especially if you try to play that shit on the guitar. And then you go to a gig and your playing just feels fresh.”
Although Stern grew up in the Washington, DC area emulating the likes of B.B. King, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix long before he ever heard of Wes Mongtomery and Jim Hall, he reveals that his earliest musical roots come from a completely different, non-guitaristic place. “I was in a church choir when I was really little. I was really into that at the time and actually still love that kind of chorale music. When I was 9 years old I was in the Washington Opera Society’s production of Puccini’s Tosca. They picked some kids from a couple of these church choirs, and one of them was me. So I got to be in this big opera production and when you’re nine years old that stuff really goes to your heart, man. It made such a big impression on me. So there I was, nine years old and digging Puccini…and B.B. King.”
Strange combination, but clearly it’s worked for Stern.
Mike plays a Yamaha Pacifica signature model guitar through a Yamaha G-100 amplifier with two 12-inch speakers and a Pearce amp with four 10-inch speakers. His other guitar resembles an old Fender Telecaster but is actually a custom instrument pieced together from parts of various Fender guitars. He plays Fender strings and has a Boss pedalboard with distortion and delay and also relies on a Yamaha SPX-90 for his signature chorus sound. “I haven’t changed it up a whole lot over the years,” says Mike. “Basically, I feel like whatever equipment makes you feel the most loose and comfortable is what you ought to go with. And then just put your energy into making the music.”
Miles Davis, Live at the Plugged Nickel (Columbia)
John Coltrane, The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (Impulse!)
Richard Bona, Scenes from My Life (Columbia)
Me’Shell N’degeocello, Bitter (Maverick)
John Lee Hooker, Boom Boom (Pointblank)
Etta James, Essential Etta James (Chess/MCA)
Jimi Hendrix Experience, Live at Winterland (Ryko)
Bill Frisell, Have a Little Faith (Elektra)
Muddy Waters, Folk Singer (MCA)