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.”