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Mike Stern - Jazz on a (rare) Summer's Day

Issue #18

Unlike some of his early contemporaries, Howe was able to channel his talents into making a successful living as session guitarist, putting his solo career on hold whilst working with a wide variety of mainstream pop artists.
Tim Slater

Mike Stern is one of America’s Jazz guitar greats. On a trip to London to play the renowned Ronnie Scott's Club, he spoke to GI's Levi Clay.

It's a rare sunny day in London and deep in the heart of Soho something special is going down. Tucked away on Frith street is the heart of the London Jazz scene, the iconic Ronnie Scott's club, where some of the best in the world have all come to make magic happen down the years, and tonight will be no different. We're here to talk to the incredible Mike Stern who's playing four sold out nights at the club. And if that wasn't enough of a reason to take him seriously, or his string of albums and awards, let's just remember that he played with Miles Davis - and that's legend status secured right there.

Born in Boston back in 1953, Stern grew up in Washington DC before heading back to Massachusetts to study at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. Prior to Berklee, Stern was heavily into Blues and Rock, and was drawn to players like Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck, but it was his mother's love of Classical and Jazz music that turned his direction, sending him off to school.

Jazz was a new and exciting direction, but it wasn't without its problems as he told me: “It's like learning a new language, like having to learn French or something. It's very awkward, you have to go word at a time and you're very self conscious. You worry about pronunciation, spelling and then you're scared to say anything in case you offend someone. I had to be really patient and understand that I'd get there - I had to stick at it and all my teachers told me that the more I played it, the more I'd get the language and the more fluent I would become.”

While at Berklee, his biggest break came from a young Pat Metheny, who saw something special in Stern's playing, gave him a few pointers and eventually recommended him for the spot of guitarist in Blood Sweat and Tears. From there his career trajectory was set and it wouldn't be long before he was playing with drumming institution Billy Cobham, the king of cool, Miles Davis (We Want Miles), and then legendary Jazz saxophonist, Michael Brecker (Don't Try This At Home). Over the years Stern has also played parts in The Brecker Brother band, Steps Ahead and The Yellowjackets too, but it's as a solo artist that his career would really take off.

With 15 records to his name as a leader, Stern is now regarded a cornerstone of modern electric Jazz guitar, with a rich tapestry of music behind him. Beginning back in '83 with “Neesh” highlights include '88s “Time In Place” (which features Michael Brecker on the fabulous Chromazone), '96s “Between The Lines”, '99s “Play”, '06s “Who Let The Cats Out?” and, of course, his latest effort, “All Over The Place”.

Mike Stern's playing and composing showcases what's possible when mixing Be-Bop, Funk, Rock and Classical music. With a huge array of modern standards to his name, this is the repertoire Jazz students will study for years to come (and the Rock elements will give most seasoned shredders a run for their money too!) and that’s before you try to analyse his seemingly endless ways to weave through chord changes with a constant stream of notes. He has a terrifying command of alternate picking, some fantastic tricks when comping, along with a strong sense of melody rooted around chord tones. As he told me: “When I first went to Berklee I kinda already knew a few things but I really started to concentrate on chord tones. I had a teacher who told me to do that, just practice playing the notes of the chord, and arpeggios and do them in different ways. They're essential notes because they outline the chords. I'd take those and try and play them in time, time is so important - music is always about timing. You can always come back later and add passing tones and chromatics but this is first. When I first started I was trying to play a lot of notes, I just wanted to sound like George Benson and those cats who play all these lines. But some of those chord tone ideas are just beautiful by themselves.”

When it comes to gear, Mike is certainly faithful. He has been playing the same Yamaha signature model for years which is essentially a modified Telecaster concept featuring a stacked Seymour Duncan pickup in the bridge and a humbucker in the neck. He plugs this into two Fender Twin Reverb amps so he can run his effects in stereo which consist of simple BOSS units, two DD3 delays and a DS1 distortion which are always running through his trademark chorus sound provided by a Yamaha SPX-90. Some of his tone could be put down to his string gauge too: a custom gauge going from .011 to .038, so quite a heavy top and a very light bottom.

Aside from checking out his albums, it's live where Mike Stern really shines. Playing Jazz, every show is a unique experience shared with the performers and the audience, but there is a great selection of concert films to check out too, the most recent being the New Paris concert with iDrum friend Dave Weckl on the kit, Tom Kennedy on bass and Bob Franceschini on tenor saxophone. If you're not going to get the chance to see Stern any time soon, this might be worth a look. No matter what you go for, you're in for a treat.







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Peter Green / Ivar Bjørnson

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