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Artist’s Choice: Mike Stern on Miles Davis & More

The guitarist chooses his favorite Miles tracks

Mike Stern

To me, almost everything Miles played was beautiful, mainly because he played with so much soul. It’s really hard to pick just five tracks from someone whose music you dig so much. Also, what do you say about music? My usual philosophy is, just listen to it, it speaks for itself. Anyway, my selections were pretty random. The only thing that guided me in my choices was to pick five selections from a couple of different periods of Miles’ career, to show how open he was to all kinds of music. I also picked tracks by two other incredible trumpet players, Wynton Marsalis and Randy Brecker.

Miles was a pretty complicated person, but he had a great sense of humor. One time, he flew me out of New York to record with him in L.A., and I stayed at his house in Malibu. He cooked dinner-chicken with lots of hot sauce-and after we ate, I put the dishes in the dishwasher and started the machine. About two minutes later, there were soap bubbles leaking everywhere and the whole kitchen was getting soaked. I turned the machine off but it was still leaking, so I yelled, “Miles, we gotta do something! Do you know how to fix this dishwasher?” Miles looked at the mess, then looked at me kind of puzzled and said, “Mike, ask me about a chord or a scale or somethin’.” Then we got into his car and went to the studio to record. I think the dishwasher was still leaking all over the kitchen floor.

1. “Oleo”
In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk, Complete (Legacy; rec. 1961, rel. 2003)

This is a fast tempo and Miles tears it up! So does everyone else on the record. 15 trillion stars! (If stars were dollars, we could pay off the U.S. budget deficit with this record.)

2. “Stella by Starlight”
The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965 (Legacy, 1995)

Another amazing live recording from Miles. Obviously a more modern conception than anything in the Blackhawk set. No matter how loose and modern Miles sounded, no matter how far out the music got, he was always able to bring it back home. He could play pretty out but also stay on the ground at the same time. He never seemed to get too far away from the blues.

3. “Sanctuary”
Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970)

There is such a gorgeous spacey feel on this tune. Miles plays so lyrically at first, then the performance builds to a climax, and then it comes back to lyricism. Lots of drama. Miles was a great storyteller.

4. “Blue in Green”
Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959)

Miles plays beautifully here-such a beautiful tone with the Harmon mute. I never thought Miles was as tough as he seemed. I always suspected that his mysterious, sometimes angry, aloof image was masking a deep sadness and insecurity that was very much a part of him. During the years I played with him and got to know him a little bit, I realized how true this was. Miles could be hypersensitive, sometimes easily hurt, but he always tried to run from that side of himself. This is not to say that he didn’t have other sides to his personality: courage, passion, warmth, joy and humor. Anyway, we can hear all of the above when he played his horn, especially when he played a ballad.


5. “Back Seat Betty,” “Fast Track”
We Want Miles (Columbia, 1982)

These are both loose funk vamps. No matter what kind of groove Miles played over, he always sounded like himself. Some of the phrasing and the feel of his playing on this record could be superimposed over a more straight-ahead jazz groove. Even when he was playing over a funk vamp, Miles was always swinging.

6. “Autumn Leaves”

Wynton Marsalis Quartet
Live at Blues Alley (Columbia, 1987)

I really dig not only this track but the whole double-album! Of course, Wynton plays great on the entire record (as he always does). He’s such a phenomenal musician. Wynton has brought a lot of attention to great music that deserves as much attention as it can get.

7. “Out of the Blue”

Mike Stern featuring Randy Brecker
All Over the Place (Heads Up, 2012)

Randy Brecker is one of my favorite musicians and is a featured artist on this record. He has a wonderful, very individual style of playing and writing. There is lots of bebop vocabulary and plenty of humor in his music, which I really like. I am very proud to have played with him over the years, and I continue to enjoy that experience to this day. Even though Randy is a very well-known and much-respected jazz musician, has won a bunch of polls, received five Grammys, etc., I still think he’s underrated. Anyway, I’m very happy to have him on my latest record, All Over the Place. He plays his ass off, as usual.

Mike Stern is a guitarist and composer who performed and recorded with Miles Davis from 1981-’83 and again during 1985-’86. Visit him online at

Originally Published