Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Stern, Mike (Michael Philips)

Guitarist Mike Stern's experimental technique draws equally from hard bop, fusion and funk. Since his early professional years with Blood, Sweat and Tears, Stern has devoted his career to showcasing this broad understanding of jazz in a variety of settings, including the late pop-infused music of trumpeter Miles Davis, the groundbreaking electronic fusion group Steps Ahead, and the modern compositions of bassist Jaco Pastorius.

Michael Philips Stern was born on January 10, 1953 in Boston, Massachusetts and raised in Washington D.C. Stern’s mother, Helen, was a classical pianist who gave him his initial music lessons. At the age of twelve, Stern began to play the guitar with his influences including the contemporary rock of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and the blues-saturated timbres of B.B. King and Albert King. At the age of seventeen, he began to expand his musical horizons by listening to jazz.

Stern enrolled at the Berklee College of Music in 1971. As part of his education, Mike immersed himself in recordings by Miles Davis, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, pianists McCoy Tyner and Bill Evans, and guitarists Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall.

At Berklee, he studied with Pat Metheny and Mick Goodrick and met and performed with several other guitarists including Bill Frisell and John Scofield.

In 1976, Mike secured his first professional gig with the group Blood, Sweat and Tears at the age of twenty-two. Recommended for the job by Metheny, Stern was with the group for the next two years and appeared on their albums More Than Ever and in 1976 and Brand New Day in 1977. Afterwards, Mike returned to Boston where he began to study with Charlie Banacos.

By 1979, Stern became a member of drummer Billy Cobham’s band, a position he held for two years. During his time with Cobham, Mike recorded the 1981 album Stratus with the drummer, to which he contributed the composition “Booze.” After his tenure with Cobham, he received an invitation to join Miles Davis’s band, which significantly raised his profile in the jazz community.

Upon accepting the position in the Davis band, Stern made his first appearance with the trumpeter on June 27, 1981 at the Kix nightclub in Boston. The concert was recorded and released as the album We Want Miles in 1981. Mike was recruited into the band alongside bassist Marcus Miller, drummer Al Foster, percussionist Mino Cinelu and saxophonist Bill Evans. The group was the first to be formed by Davis after a long sabbatical, and helped to reestagblish the trumpeter's reputation as a performer.

A highlight of Stern's time with Davis is the song “Jean-Pierre” from We Want Miles. The song begins with a loose bass groove laid down by Miller, before Davis and Evans enter the arrangement playing the melody together. Stern supplements the two horns by playing a descending chordal figure which gives the melody more harmonic clarity. Mike continues to support the melody by playing the last few notes of the melody during each chorus, resulting in a tag into the upcoming verse. During his solo, Stern utilizes his rock influences, combining Hendrix-esque bravado with a horn-like phrasing style that stands out within the ensemble.

Stern performed with Davis through 1983, appearing on the 1981 album The Man With The Horn and 1983’s Star People. During his time with Davis, Mike performed at jam sessions at the 55 Grand Club in the Soho neighborhood of New York City. Other musicians that performed at these jam sessions included bassists Jeff Andrews and Harvie Swartz and drummer Joey Baron amongst others.

Beginning in 1983, Stern became a member of Jaco Pastorius’ band Word of Mouth. After two years with Pastorius, Mike returned to the Davis band where he accompanied him on a yearlong tour. In 1985, he recorded his debut album as a leader Neesh for the Japan-based Trio label. In the summer of 1986, Stern toured with saxophonist David Sanborn before becoming a member of the group Steps Ahead alongside vibraphonist Mike Mainieri, tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, bassist Darryl Jones and drummer Steve Smith.

In 1986, Stern released Upside Downside, his first album for Atlantic Records. Recorded in New York in March and April of 1986, the album features contributions from Sanborn, Pastorious, tenor saxophonist Bob Berg, bassists Mark Egan and Jeff Andrews, keyboardist Mitch Forman, percussionist Leonard “Doc” Gibbs and drummers Dave Weckl and Steve Jordan.

The same year, Stern began to perform in Brecker’s quintet, a position he held until 1988. 1986 also saw Mike performing with trumpeter Lew Soloff on his album Yesterdays. Recorded for the Paddle Wheel label, the album includes the talents of bassist Charnett Moffett and drummer Elvin Jones. 1988 also saw the release of his third album Time in Place, which he recorded in December of 1987.

Stern quickly followed up Time in Place with his 1989 release Jigsaw. The album was his first album to chart on the Billboard Magazine Charts, reaching the number twelve position on the Top Contemporary Jazz Albums chart. The same year, Mike formed a touring group that featured Bob Berg, drummer Dennis Chambers and bassist Lincoln Goines. In 1990, the group toured throughout Europe and Japan and appeared on his 1991 album Odds or Evens.

During this time, Stern began to perform regularly at the 55 Bar in New York City, and has returned frequently to the club as a performer. In 1992, he became a member of the reunited Brecker Brothers Band. The same year, the Hal Leonard Corporation published a book of transcriptions of his songs under the title Mike Stern Guitar Transcriptions. The book features transcriptions of several of his songs including “After All,” “Little Shoes” and “Upside Downside.”

1992 also saw the release of the album Standards (and Other Songs). The album features renditions of several standards including “Moment’s Notice” by John Coltrane and “Straight, No Chaser” by Thelonious Monk. The same year, Guitar Player Magazine named him the Best Jazz Guitarist of the Year. In 1993, he toured with tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson. The following year, Stern released the album Is What It Is,which featured contributions from Brecker.

In 1996, Stern won critical praise for his album Between the Lines. The following year, Mike released the album Give and Take alongside bassist John Patitucci, drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Gil Goldstein. The album features such standards as tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo,” John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and composer Cole Porter’s “I Love You.” The same year, he won the Orville W. Gibson Award that year for Best Jazz Guitarist.

For his 1999 album Play, Stern collaborated with both Scofield and Frisell. Recorded at rock band Pearl Jam’s studio Litho, the album also featured contributions from Lincoln Goines, Dennis Chambers, drummer Ben Perowsky and saxophonist Bob Malach. In 2001, he released the album Voices, which featured Stern first foray into vocal music with the addition of vocalist Elizabeth Kontomanou.

On May 12, 2002, Stern recorded the album 4 Generations of Miles, an album in which he joins other Miles Davis alumni including tenor saxophonist George Coleman, drummer Jimmy Cobb and bassist Ron Carter. After fifteen years with Atlantic Records, Mike moved to the ESC label for his 2004 release These Times, which features contributions from bassist Richard Bona, saxophonist Kenny Garrett and banjoist Bela Fleck. A shining example of Mike’s work on the record is the album’s seventh track “Avenue B.”

The song begins with Stern performing a simple choral figure which provides a backdrop for Garrett. Mike’s reverb-soaked tone works well with the song’s breezy feel, which allows the rhythm section to lock into a groove a lot easier. Stern and Garrett begin to play the melody figure in unison, which cuts through the ensemble with its sheer power. During his solo, Mike implements slow phrases and brief motives that synch well with the overall atmosphere of the song.

In 2006, Stern joined the Heads Up International label his release Who Let the Cats Out? The album included bassist Anthony Jackson and trumpeter Roy Hargrove amongst others. The following year, Mike was the artist in residence at the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal where he received the Miles Davis Award. At the same festival, he performed the group the Yellowjackets, which served as an impetus for Lifecycle, a joint collaboration that was released in 2008. The album was critically praised and was nominated for the Best Contemporary Jazz Album Grammy Award.

In 2008, Stern released the DVD New Morning: The Paris Concert, which was recorded at the New Morning club in Paris. Included in his band at this time was Dave Weckl, saxophonist Bob Franceschini and bassist Tom Kennedy. In February 2009, Down Beat Magazine named Mike one of the seventy-five great guitarists of all time. In August 2009, Stern released his latest album Big Neighborhood, which featured several luminaries of the jazz scene both past and present including trumpeter Randy Brecker and bassists Chris Minh Doky and Esperanza Spaulding. A highlight of the album is the album’s fourth track “Song For Pepper,” which features Spaulding on vocals.

The song begins with Spaulding and Stern performing the melody in unison with the aid of light brushes on a snare drum in the back round. The way that the timbres of the vocals and the guitar blend forms a powerful melodic design. During Mike’s solo, he incorporates tasteful melodic motifs that are shadowed by the piano. His solo seamlessly goes back into the bridge where the song fades out with Stern and Spaulding improvising where they create a dynamic counterpoint.

Stern lives in Manhattan with his wife Leni, also a successful composer and guitarist.

Select Discography

As a leader

Neesh (1985)

Upside Downside (1986)

Time in Place (1988)

Jigsaw (1989)

Odds or Evens (1991)

Standards (and Other Songs) (1992)

Is What It Is (1994)

Between the Lines (1996)

Give and Take (1997)

Play (1999)

Voices (2001)

These Times (2004)

Who Let the Cats Out? (2006)

Big Neighborhood (2009)

With Blood, Sweat and Tears

More Than Ever (1976)

Brand New Day (1977)

With Ron Carter, George Coleman and Jimmy Cobb

4 Generation of Miles (2002)

With Billy Cobham

Stratus (1981)

With Miles Davis

We Want Miles (1981)

The Man With The Horn (1981)

Star People (1983)

With Lew Soloff

Yesterdays (1986)

With The Yellowjackets

Lifecycle (2008)

Contributor: Eric Wendell


In Conversation with Mike Stern by Ted Panken