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Stern, Mike

Mike Stern

Jazz-rock guitarist

For The Record

Called to Play with Davis

An Open-minded Player

Trio of Guitars for Play

Selected discography


A hard-edged experimental guitarist who rose to fame playing with Miles Davis in the 1980s, Mike Stern has earned a reputation as a bandleader and sideman for his work in bebop and hard bop, as well as his skillful technique playing fusion, straight-ahead jazz, and jazz-rock. His extraordinary career, spanning from his 1986 Atlantic Records debut Upside Down through his 1999 album Play, illustrates his unique ability to master an array of styles, from rock, funk, and the blues, to improvised jazz and alternative musicall of which he counts as personal influences. A heroic soloist who has the ability to push the envelope to Hendrixian heights, asserted Bill Milkowski in the guitarists official online biography, he also has the capacity to play with Jim Hall-like sensitivity. It is the relative ease with which he shifts from aggressive bop n roll to an elegant walking on eggshells gentility that makes Stern such a remarkably flexible and distinctive player.

Born on January 10, 1953, in Boston, Massachusetts, and raised in Washington, D.C., Stern began to learn guitar at the age of 12, emulating the styles of legendary blues and rock players. I started out listening and playing along with the records of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, and a lot of bluesB.B. King, Albert King, that kind of stuff, he told Howard Mandel of Down Beat. Then I got into jazz a few years later, when I was around 17, and found it was a little more involved. As an ear player, Id get lost in about two seconds.

Realizing that he wanted to further explore the intricacies of jazz music, in 1971 Stern enrolled at the esteemed Berklee College of Music, where he studied the genre seriously. He immersed himself in the records of great bandleaders, like trumpet players Miles Davis and John Coltrane alongside pianists such as McCoy Tyner and Bill Evans. He studied guitar with Mick Goodrick, among others, and met and played with fellow guitarists Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, and John Scofield. Mick Goodrick had a large influence actually on Frisell, Sco and myself, Stern recalled to Mandel. There was a whole thing around the way Mick played guitar in Boston at that time. His approach was a bit removed from traditional jazz guitar: less percussive, more legato, more string-bending and definitely more phrasing from rock and funk. My generation of players were all more into that, because wed been in Top 40 bands playing that way coming up. For jazz guitarists today, its impossible to ignore what everybodys playing. During his stay at Berklee, Stern also developed an appreciation for jazz guitarists such as Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall; both musicians significantly influenced his own playing, yet the guitarist would remain just as inspired by the styles of artists such as Hendrix, alternative-rock icon Beck, and blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan over the years.

Sterns first professional gig occurred in 1976, when, upon the recommendation of Metheny, he landed a

For The Record

Born Michael Stern on January 10, 1953, in Boston, MA; married composer/guitarist Leni Stern. Education: Attended Berklee College of Music in Boston; studied with Mick Goodrick and Charlie Banacos.

Started playing guitar at age 12; joined Blood, Sweat and Tears, 197678; played with Billy Cobham, 197981; played with Miles Davis, 198183 and 1985; toured with Word of Mouth, 198384; toured with David Sanborn, played with Steps Ahead, released Atlantic Records debut Upside Downside, 1986; played with Michael Breckers quintet, 198688; played with a reunited Brecker Brothers Band, 1993; released Standards (and Other Songs), 1993; released Grammy Award-nominated albums Is What It Is, 1994, and Between the Lines, 1996; released Play, 1999.

Awards: Best Jazz Guitarist of the Year, Guitar Player, 1993; Orville W. Gibson Award for Best Jazz Guitarist, 1996.

Addresses: Record company Atlantic Records, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York City, NY 10104, (212) 7072000, website: Website The Official Mike Stern Pages,

spot with the group Blood, Sweat and Tears. Remaining with this group for the next two years, Stern appeared on two Blood, Sweat and Tears albums More Than Ever and Brand New Daybefore returning to Boston to study with local jazz guru Charlie Banacos. Hes a piano player who works with all instruments. Ive been studying off and on with him for years Hes the best teacher Ive ever found. He gives you all kinds of stuffclassical, chromatic, horn studies. At the same time, he pulls for non-symmetrical, wide-open ideas, Stern, an avid student throughout his career, explained in an interview with Guitar Players Jesse Gress.

Called to Play with Davis

In 1979, Stern joined drummer Billy Cobhams powerhouse jazz-rock fusion band, a stint that lasted two years, before he received a call to play with Miles Davis. By now, Stern was known for his fast and fluid, highly expressive personal style that integrated rock, blues, and jazz. Davis, too, came to appreciate the guitarists array of influences. Miles liked what I was doing in that regard, he recalled to Mandel, because the first time he said, Were going to go on the road. I asked, Whos going to play keyboards? and he said, No keyboards, just you. I said, Are you kidding?And Miles said, Dont worry about it, just play. Ill hear it. Miles wanted that vibescaled down, really raw, just guitar, without a whole lot of chords.

Accepting Daviss offer, Stern made his first public appearance with the group on June 27, 1981, at the Kix nightclub in Boston, a performance documented on the 1982 live album We Want Miles. Stern continued to play with Davis through 1983, appearing for two more albums with his group: 1981s The Man With the Horn and 1983s Star People. From 1983 to 1984, Stern toured with Word of Mouth, a band led by Jaco Pastorius, before returning to Daviss band for another year-long tour in 1985. After this, Stern continued to accompany other musicians. In the summer of 1986, he toured with saxophonist David Sanborn; later that year, he joined Steps Ahead, a group also featuring vibraphonist Mike Mainieri, saxophonist Michael Brecker, bassist Victor Bailey, and drummer Steve Smith. Sterns debut under his own name for Atlantic Records entitled Upside Downside, featuring Sanborn, Patorius, saxophonist Bob Berg, bassists Mark Egan and Jeff Andrews, keyboardist Mitch Forman, and drummers Dave Weckl and Steve Jordan, was also released in 1986.

Stern served in Michael Breckers acclaimed quintet from 1986 though 1988, then released his second Atlantic album, 1988s Time in Place. Again, Stern assimilated a cast of well-known names as his backing band: Peter Erskine on drums, Jim Beard on keyboards, Jeff Andrews on bass, Don Alias on percussion, and Don Grolnick on organ. Next came 1989s Jigsaw, featuring Sterns tribute piece to Davis entitled Chief, another successful album produced by fellow guitarist Steve Khan. In 1989, Stern formed a touring group with Bob Berg, drummer Dennis Chambers, and bassist Lincoln Goines; the quartet continued to work together through 1992 and appeared for the guitarists third Atlantic release, that years Odds or Evens.

An Open-minded Player

Also in 1992, Stern joined a reunited Brecker Brothers Band, and his guitar work proved one of the key reasons for the groups popular success over the following two years. In the meantime, Stern in 1993 released the acclaimed Standards (and Other Songs), a decidedly more introspective album for the guitarist that led Guitar Player magazines readers and critics alike to name him Best Jazz Guitarist of the Year. I love the tunes. I like memorable melodies, and obviously standards have that, he told Bill Milkowski and Jesse Gress in Guitar Player about making the album. But its hard to say what a jazz standard really is. I guess a loose definition is a song that was originally written for a Broadway musical or for a movie and has been covered by singers, which is where the whole vocal approach to playing them comes in. But from a playing standpoint, these tunes are a part of a common language. You can play them with a whole bunch of different people. You just call the tune, and they know it because theyve played it a thousand times. So in that respect, I love playing standards because its relatively easy. You dont have to scuffle through reading heads and learning the material. You can just play.

For 1994s Is What It Is, an album offering another great contribution by Brecker on tenor saxophone, Stern returned to the fusion fray with a vengeance, Milkowski commented in Down Beat Another hardhitting effort, Between the Lines, followed in 1996 and won rave reviews for its broad musical interests. You cant argue with your heart, Stern said, explaining his method of searching for musical direction to Down Beats Michael Point. I try to give everything I hear a chance, the guitarist continued. I dont think theres one musical direction thats right with all the others being wrong. I just listen for honesty, for something that touches my heart as well as my intellect, and if its there the music catches my interest. Both the richly textured Between the Lines and Is What It Is, a collection of original compositions, earned Stern two Grammy Award nominations.

In 1996, Stern returned to an overall jazz-inspired aesthetic with Give and Take, a more spontaneous recording featuring John Patitucci on acoustic bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums, as well as guest appearances by Alias, Brecker, Sanborn, and Gil Goldstein on piano. Sterns playing has never been betterhes inquisitive, excitable as always, and focused, wrote Robin Tolleson for Down Beatìn a review of the session. Upon the strength of Give and Take, which included covers of Sonny Rollins Oleo, Coltranes Giant Steps, and Cole Porters I Love You alongside a rendition of Hendrixs Who Knows and originals like the bebop Hook Up, Stern won the Orville W. Gibson Award that year for Best Jazz Guitarist.

Trio of Guitars for Play

Taking a new approach for his ninth Atlantic album, 1999s Play, Stern decided to indulge in an idea he had held for some timeto record with other guitarists. Thus, he summoned both Scofield and Frisell to take part. Ive never recorded with another guitarist, so when I decided to do it, those two guys were the obvious choices, Stern told Darrin Fox of Guitar Player. Theyre both good friends of mine. Bill and I used to sit around and play standards together in the early 70s, and Sco and I played with Miles Davis. And although were all jazz guitarists, each of us grew up in the 60s, so influences like Hendrix, B.B. King, James Brown, the Ventures, and the Beatles make up big parts of our style. Plus, the three of us listen to other instruments for ideas. My style reflects a lot of the horn influenceso does Scosand Frisell takes a more pianistic approach.

Recorded at the rock band Pearl Jams studio, Litho, with appearances by Dennis Chambers and Ben Perowsky on drums, Goines on bass, and Bob Malach on saxophone, Play won Stern further acclaim, yet was also an enjoyable recording to make. Thats why this albums called Play, after all, he noted to Mandel. Obviously, theres a lot of playing on the album, but its supposed to be fun, too. Because if you cant have fun playing music, youre in trouble. The pleasure derived from music, Stern believed, was the single factor that kept him motivated throughout his 20-year career. As he explained to Gress: Music is such a gift. There are times of scuffling, when you feel like youre pushing a rock up a hill and youre not where you want to be. But as soon as you start playing, its like, Tm just going to develop my potential on the instrument. When music does something for you, thats a gift. The fact that you can get lost in something so beautiful is amazing.

A fixture on the New York jazz club scene and on the jazz album charts throughout the 1990s, Stern made his home in Manhattan, where he lives with wife Leni Sterna successful composer and guitarist in her own rightin a modest apartment. Although his wife would seem a perfect musical collaborator, Mike and Leni Stern prefer to keep their professional lives separate. They have never played on one anothers albums or given interviews together. Im constantly asking her about my stuff. I very much respect her opinion with regard to playing and writing. Shes a terrific musician, Stern explained to Milkowski and Gress. But we draw the line at playing together. And who knows if thats forever? Sometimes your profession becomes allencompassing, so sometimes we avoid talking about it. Well just say, Talk about anything else but music Maybe thats why its worked out so great.

In addition to his solo work, Stern has appeared on recordings as a sideman for numerous musicians and groups including Les Arbuckle, Thomas Barth, Marc Beacco, Jim Beard, Bob Beldon, Bob Berg, Jerry Bergonzi, Charles Blenzig, Bunny Brunei, David Clayton-Thomas, Billy Cobham, Michael Cunningham and Four Corners, Michael Gerber, Lincoln Goines, David Alan Gross, Jim Hall, Tom Harrell, Joe Henderson, Motohiko Hino, Dieter llg, Jazzsick, Jens Johansson, Shinichi Kato, Scott Kreitzer, Dave Larue, Eric Le Lann, Pete Levin, the Peter Linhart Group, Didier Lockwood, Michael Manther, Andrea Marcelli, Andrea Marchesini, Pat Martino, Pippo Martino, Thierry Mineau, Dan Moretti, Shunzo ONo, Tiger Okoshi, Ed Palermo, Eddie Palmieri, Jaco Pastorius, Georg Pommer, Michael Pope, Jeff Richman, Alex Riel, Doug Robinson, Randy Roos, Arturo Sandoval, Steve Slagle, Steve Smith, Lew Soloff, Spajazzy, Mr. Spats, Harvie Swartz, Michal Urbaniak, Jukkis Uotila, Roland Vazquez, and Kimo Williams.

Selected discography

As bandleader; on Atlantic Records

Upside Downside, 1986.

Time in Place, 1988.

Jigsaw, 1989.

Odds or Evens, 1991.

Standards (and Other Songs), 1993.

Is What It Is, 1994.

Between the Lines, 1996.

Give and Take, 1997.

Play, 1999.

With Blood, Sweat and Tears

Brand New Day, 1976.

In Concert, 1976.

More Than Ever

Live and Improvised, Legacy, 1991.

What Goes Up! The Best of Blood, Sweat and Tears, Legacy, 1995.

With Michael Brecker, the Brecker Brothers, and Steps Ahead

(Steps Ahead), Live in Tokyo, 1986.

(Michael Brecker), Dont Try This at Home, Impulse!, 1988.

(Brecker Brothers), Return to the Becker Brothers, GRP, 1992. With Miles Davis; on Columbia Records

The Man with the Horn, 1981. We Want Miles, 1982. Star People, 1983.



Swenson, John, Rolling Stone Jazz & Blues Album Guide, Random House, 1999.


Billboard, November 27, 1999, p. 24.

Down Beat, April 1994, p. 43; September 1994, p. 47; April 1996, p. 40; December 1997, pp. 7273; November 1999, p. 61; April 2000, pp. 5051.

Guitar Player, March 1993, pp. 95104; February 1998, pp. 6975; March 2000, p. 35.


All Music Guide, 16, 2000).

Mike Stern, Atlantic Records, (April 16, 2000).

The Official Mike Stern Pages, 16, 2000).

Laura Hightower

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