Mike Stern: Playing Through the Pain

After suffering a potentially career-ending injury, guitarist Mike Stern forges ahead with a fiery new album

Photo of Mike Stern

You can get a lot accomplished in two and a half months. For instance, that’s how long it took legendary New York jazz-rock guitarist Mike Stern to go from having two broken arms—he fell over construction-site debris on the street in New York in the summer of 2016—to gigging at his main hang, the 55 Bar in Greenwich Village. Just as improbably, Stern, whose career began with sideman work for Miles Davis and Jaco Pastorius in the 1980s, was back in the studio only six months later, laying down tracks for his new LP, the aptly titled Trip (Heads Up). An earnest, enthusiastic fusion field day, the album is notable not only for what’s there—contributions from trumpeter Wallace Roney, saxophonist Bill Evans and drummer Lenny White, among others—but also for what’s missing: sonic evidence of Stern’s accident.

At a 55 Bar hit in July, with the leader backed by bassist Harvie S and drummer Richie Morales, you couldn’t hear it either. Stern took long, winding solos that never grew dull or revealed a loss of steam. “You gotta keep going with it, right?” says Stern, 64, before the performance, detailing his injury and two subsequent surgeries. “’Cause everybody’s got shit. I mean, Django, Les Paul, to name a couple. I got a bunch of friends that have had much worse shit than this. And my wife, [guitarist and singer Leni Stern], is a breast cancer survivor of 30 years ago. And she’s been totally cool since then. She went on the road when she was on chemo. So if you got a wife like that, you can’t wimp out—that’s for damn sure [laughs].” BRAD FARBERMAN

JazzTimes: Just three months after your accident, you were onstage again, sitting in with Chick Corea. Was that your first time back onstage?

No, I played here a couple times first. … It was the end of October [when I played with Chick at the Blue Note in New York]. Yeah, because I went on the road for the entire month of November with me and [drummer] Dave Weckl. [We] did a co-led thing. And it was tricky: I was trying [to hold the pick] with a glove. I was trying to figure out how the fuck to do this, ’cause it wasn’t possible. I figured it out with a glove and Velcro and stuff like that, so it was OK but really a drag. Every other day I wanted to [say], “Alright, fuck this. I can’t do it.” Blah, blah, blah. And then the next day I said, “I’ve gotta keep trying.”

So then I went on the road with Dave, and some nights were getting better. Somehow I was able to work this out. Then by March I’d done a whole bunch of gigs and gotten through them, and generally the support was great. People were saying, “Man, your heart is coming through, and there’s enough stuff coming through,” and I’m saying, “I can’t feel this and that. This sucks.” There was real trouble. Still it bothers me. But it’s much better now, because by March I had another surgery … and [it] cooled me out more so. It’s kind of a work in progress.

Mike Stern (Photo by Sandrine Lee)

Tell us the stories behind two important song titles from this record, “Screws” and “Scotch Tape and Glue.”

The Scotch tape was what originally I was using; it wasn’t Scotch tape, but it was some kind of tape. I was trying to take the pick. I was just trying to find my way, figure out how to do this. Then finally I started using this wig glue, so that’s all I’m using now, which is on the pick. It sticks sometimes, [and] I can hear it. The dynamics are not quite as fluid as I’d like.

It’s kind of a mindfuck—you have to just keep going and go for different things. You start editing: “I can’t do that.” And you just say, “Fuck it. I’m gonna do it even if it comes out like shit.” You gotta try. I saw that with Miles when I was playing with him. At one point he got really weak; he had a small stroke. And we still kept playing. He took a couple months off, and then all of a sudden he was back. He had his hand in some kind of weird contraption. He was in a wheelchair in the airports. And he kinda kept going. He was walking really slow. But you know, you see guys troop through to try to do what they love to do. And he managed. He got his soul out there, and then it got stronger. He gradually got stronger.

And what about the song title “Screws”?

“Screws” was from the 11 screws I had in my shoulder, and a plate. They took out four recently. I asked the doctor if he could take out some from my head, and he said, “It would cost too much.” [laughs] I said, “They’re loose already!”

Are you noticing any positive changes in your playing? Is there anything that you’re discovering?

Nah. Maybe. I guess the main discovery, or positive thing, is that I can keep going. That’s the main thing. You know, shit happens, and the positive thing is the support, because that gets you the strength, I think. I don’t think anybody could do this if they’re not able to ask for help. … [That support is] what I think gives you strength. And then just the music alone, that’s one thing that you get more grateful for—just to have that in your life.

Read David R. Adler’s profile of Mike Stern and Richard Bona in JazzTimes.