In conversation with mike stern
By Ted Panken
That appearances are deceiving is evident in the case of Mike Stern, who at 56 resembles a battle-tested rocker of the Spinal Tap varietyóhe wears his thick black hair shoulder-length, complementing the look with an Ď80s-centric uniform of black pullover, black jeans, and black sneakersórather than one of the most distinguished jazz guitarists in the world. Indeed, a rock sensibility is a componentóbut only a componentóof Sternís capacious arsenal, as is evident on Big Neighborhood [HeadsUp], his 14th leader date. Joined by four different rhythm sections and guests who represent a wide range of styles and strategies, Stern not only rocks out (with guitarists Steve Vai and Eric Johnson) but also references the blues, funk, various Afro-diasporic idioms, and hardcore bebop, knitting together the flow with his warm signature sound, as he has done on three similarly diverse recordings since 2001 (Voices, These Times, and Who Let The Cats Out).
Stern is also a hardcore road warrior of long-standing, and he had just concluded a three-week run of one-nighters in Europe when Jazz.com caught up with him at his East Side Manhattan apartment. The 11 a.m. start time came only a few hours after the conclusion of his previous eveningís gig at the 55 Bar, a dim, narrow saloon on the ground floor of a Christopher Street brownstone in Greenwich Village where Stern, surrounding himself with a cast of characters as diverse as New York City, has conducted his R&D since 1985. Stern seemed none the worse for wear for the energies expended during his late night with partners Anthony Jackson and Lionel Cordew, or, for that matter, from the grind of his most recent tour, a 19-day marathon in Europe and North Africa from which he had returned only 36 hours before.
You played last night at the 55 Bar, and are back again tomorrow night. How often have you played there this year?
Not that much this year. But whenever Iím here, Iím playing there. I traveled back from Europe on a Sunday after a long tour, and then we played on Monday. Itís cool just to be able to go there and hit. Itís such a cool place. As we know, everything is changing. People do cool things in settings like that all of a sudden are happening less and less. Pat Metheny told me that when he first started his band, he got a van, and he and Mark Egan and Danny Gottlieb and Lyle Mays just went around playing at coffee shops everywhere. Well, you canít do that any more. I used to play with Jerry Bergonzi at a lot of small places in Boston that are gone. 1369 Club was one of them. The Willow. So 55 Bar is one of the few places like that still around.
Letís talk about Big Neighborhood, your new release. The presentation is similar to what youíve done throughout this decade, since Voices, incorporating the various flavors that you like to use as vehicles for composition and expression. The previous three records had two core rhythm sections and special guests. Here you expand that concept with four rhythm sections. Also here you rock out, which you havenít done on the preceding records. Itís also the first recording on which youíve played with another guitarist since Play, with John Scofield and Bill Frisell, which was a very different proposition.
Some special guests were involved on my final record for Atlantic, Voices, and also the following record, These Times. But Voices was more of a concept record, for lack of a better term. I used voices on just about everything except maybe one tune. Richard Bona and Elizabeth Kontomanou sang, and it was the first time Iíd ever used anybody singing along with any of my melodies. Richard and Elizabeth were on These Times, too, and Kenny Garrett and Victor Wooten came to play as special guestsóbut it had a similar flavor. I like variety on records. A while ago, I made Standards and Other Songs, which was all standard tunes and three other songs that I wroteóthat was a single concept. But variety seems to work for me because I like a lot of different kinds of music.
This record is probably more adventurous than anything Iíve done in terms of bringing in special guests and people outside my normal orbit. I think that guitar, more than other instrument, blurs the boundaries between different niches. But I do consider myself a jazz musician. Thatís what I studied. Thatís what I listen to all the timeómore straight-ahead a lot of times. But as I say, Iím coming from a bunch of different places also.
Now, for this record, I checked out two guitar players that I dug for a long time, and wanted to record withóSteve Vai and Eric Johnson. Steve Vai is a rocker.
He played with Zappa, and all these speed ...
That kind of stuff. But heís an excellent musician. Heís written a lot of things with strings and he orchestratesóhe does things with the Metropole Orchestra in Holland, and some other places. He does some classical stuff, too. Iíve always known this about him, and Iíve dug tunes on some of his records. I told Vinnie Colaiuta, a great drummer, who isnít on Big Neighborhood, but on other records Iíve done, that some-day Iíd like to hook up with Steve Vai and do some more rocking stuff, and Vinnie said that would be great, because Steve is amazing.
Anyway, I called Steve, and he was interested in doing itówhich was not a slam dunk. But it turns out (I didnít know this) that he was in Boston at the time I was there, attending Berklee, and he used to check me out playing bebop gigs.
Eric Johnson is more of a blues guy, from Texas, and Iíd talked to him over the last eight or nine years about playing on a record, and now finally we got it together.
To get both of these guys on the same record was risky, in some ways. I donít know them. We donít play all the time ... well, we donít ever play. So I was wondering if it was going to work, but I told myself to go for it. I thought it worked great. Theyíre strong personalities, and I thought about the tunes that would fit them, knowing their styles, and that would fit me as well. One thing that glues the record together, for better or for worse, is that I played on everything and wrote all the tunes. But because I donít play regularly with these guys, a bit of chance was involved.
Also, because of scheduling reasons, they couldnít come to New York, so I had to go to them. I went to Austin to record with EricóI took Lionel Cordew, a great drummer from New York, who I play with a lot, and Lincoln Goines, a bassist I play with a lot, and Jim Beard, who produced this record and played keyboards. We were able to rehearse the tunes here, and then we went there and Eric played along. We played live. For this kind of music, it has to be live, so you get the live vibe. I canít send files or whatever. I donít have a computer. I mean, I could work that out somehow, but I donít want to. We had one day for each guy, and two tunes apiece. So we were live in the studio in Texas with Eric, and then right afterwards we went to L.A. to do the tunes with Steve. The session with Steve Vai was with Dave Weckl, who is already in L.A. and plays with me a lot.
The rest of it was in New York. The first time was with Esperanza Spaulding, whom Iíd heard about even before her first recordsóthat she was a great singer and a great bass player. For a lot of these decisions, I went with instinct. I had these tunes that I thought would be great for Esperanza, and I decided, 'If I see her, Iím going to ask her to do this.' I saw her at the Red Sea Jazz Festival, where she was playing with Terri Lyne Carrington, who was supposed to be on my last record, Who Let The Cats Out, which had Roy Hargrove, MíShell Ndegeocello, Gregoire Maret ... This date is more adventurous than that one, though.
You tour so much. For your last one, I think I counted 17 concerts in 19 days in seven countries, mostly Europe.
Something like that.
For you, thatís probably a light tour.
In the summer, itís a challenge, because youíve got to run around to get to the gigs.
Itís a challenge that you seem to welcome.
Itís ok. The travelís kind of a drag, but the musicís fun as hell. Thatís the main thing. You really get paid to travel. The musicís no problem! Weíre all relieved when we get to the gig, and weíve done the sound check and itís time to hit.
The month before, you were in Mexico.
It was a kind of busy time. I was supposed to be in Mexico earlier, and then they had the swine flu. So I went a little later.
Next month, youíre touring the States with the Yellowjackets.
I did a special project with them. Those guys are amazing. Bob Mintzeróforget it! Heís writing his ass off. On the bus, heís writing these classical things.
You seem to make a real distinction between recordings and playing live.
I had some opportunity to play with Joe Henderson right around the time he did Musings For Miles with John Scofield, and Sco couldnít make some of the live hits. I played with Dave Holland and Al Foster. It was a treat to play with Joe, and we got along really well. He actually came over here. I told Joeís manager, 'Iím not going to play with him just cold, without any rehearsal. I donít want to read on stage. I want to learn the tunes.' She said, 'Ok, weíll hook it up.' I called Al Foster. I said, 'Iím feeling a little bit better about these gigs coming, because Joeís going to come over here and rehearse.' Al said, 'Are you crazy? Youíll be lucky if he shows up to the gig!' But Joe came over. I had a little amp out, and we played for five hours. I had a little amp out here. He was looking through my CD collection, and he saw all this stuffósome of his own records, some Trane, some Sonny, some this-and-that. He picked up this Stevie Ray Vaughan record, and I asked, 'What do you think about Stevie Ray Vaughan.' He said, 'Stevie Ray was a motherfucker at what he did.' It was funny to hear him say it, because Joe was always well-spoken. He was wide-open to all kinds of stuff. But during the week that we were playing at the Blue Note, we were talking about recording in the studio and playing live, and he said, 'In the studio and playing live are two different things.' Joe used to play long live. Heíd stretch forever on one tuneóand it was killing.
So I think you have to realize that they are two different thingsóthough of course, there are similarities. I always try to get a live vibe in the studio. But often youíre separated in different rooms, so they can mix later, which is a cool thing to go for. So you try to compromise, and get a live vibe. I donít like sending a part and then overdubbing. Again, for my music, it wonít work. Itís got to be live. But having said that, itís different than the live version of the same tunes. Which I did on this DVD. Itís a live version of a lot of tunes on the last few records I did, and theyíre longer and we stretch out more.
For a live situation, itís very important to have trust in your producer, and Jim Beard seems to be your producer of choice.
On a lot of records he is. Gil Goldstein did the Standards record and the Give and Take record. Iíve known Jim for years. Heís an awesome musician; he helps so much. I bring the tune to him at his loft space which he shares a loft space with a great guitar player, John Harrington, with whom heís playing in Steely Dan right nowóJim was musical director for Madeleine Peyroux, and now heís doing Steely Dan. Anyway, I go in with the tune, and we demo it. He has a great concept for, 'Is this what youíre hearing for the drums?' He uses a little drum machine thing, and does the rhythm on the keyboardóhe doesnít just use a loop. In this case, we were hurried for time, so we actually had to make just loops. Usually, itís much better conceptualized, but we figured that everyone would figure it out, and thank God they did. We had a little bit of rehearsal.
In the future, Iím going to want to go back to taking a little bit more time with the demos. At one point with Steve Vai, when we did 'Moroccan Roll,' they werenít getting it. Weíd sent them out just this melody over a loop of the drums. We were late to get to the rehearsal, since the flights were always late, so we had a half-hour. Steve had learned the melody, which was trickyóhe learned everything and he played the shit out of it. But it was done more as a funky kind of thing, and I wanted it to be more Middle Eastern sounding. So I said, 'Have you ever heard of Nusrat Fatih Ali Khan?' Steve said, 'I almost played with him; right before he died, I was going to play with him.' He told me he had a sitar-guitar (I didnít even know what that was; since then, Iíve tried oneótheyíre very cool), and that heíd put it on later as an overdub in addition to what he played live,' which was the bulk of it. Eventually, we got the vibe of that tune. Had we had more time to demo that stuff, it would have been clearer, but we got it anyway.
Anyway, Jim helps with all that stuff. Makes really good demos to send everybody. No matter who it is, even if itís just one group, if you donít have enough time to rehearse (which a lot of people donít, theyíre busy and so on), you want to try to give them a sense of everything, and THEN rehearse. Give them as much as you can. I like to do the same thing when Iím doing a record with somebody else, have them send me the music so I can learn it and try to get my stuff together as much as possible. Then you rehearse, then they tweak it from there.
Is there an overriding thread in this record? You say that in putting these records together, a lot of your choices are impulsive and you follow your instincts. Now, I donít know much you listen to your recordings after the fact, but you can reflect on them. This is the fourth recording where youíre presenting a similar mix of material.
Well, the last few records ... you said the last four. I think itís probably more the last threeóThese Times, then Who Let the Cats Out ...
Not Voices so much.
Not Voices so much. Itís really more of a concept for me.
My thinking is that in the 2000s youíve more explicitly incorporated world influences into your music.
Yes, thatís true, and that seems like itís going to stay. My wife, Leni, does records with more of a line, one thing through all of it. She just did something called Africa, which has all these African musicians. Sheís playing some with Salif Keita now, and Baaba Mal. She goes over there and does that, and rides camels to gigs. She is very adventurous that way, and Iím hearing what she brings home, and itís gotten in me. Then also part of it is just knowing Richard Bona. I met him in the Ď90s, when I was playing at a festival in Europe with the late, great tenor player with Bob Berg in a band we had then. Richard was playing with Joe Zawinul at the time. I had heard about him, and we had the day free, so I grabbed him and said, 'Let's play a little in my hotel room,' where I had a little amplifier. We were playing some standards, and started singing a couple of my tunes that he knew. He told me heíd bought a couple of my CDs and knew my stuff, and he was playing and singing a couple of ballads. That made me think I had to do something with either him or somebody else singing a couple of these tunes. When it was time to do my last CD for Atlantic, called Voices, I asked him if he thought it would be all right, and he was very encouraging. After he heard a couple of the tunes, he said, 'I'll sing them.' So I kind of leapt into this new thing with voices. With his voice, it had a 'world' flavor anyway. That feeling is on Voices, on These Times, on Who Let The Cats Out, and on Big Neighborhood as well.
On These Times I started wanting to use different guests, and I developed that idea more on Who Let The Cats Out, which was my first record for Heads-Up, and Big Neighborhood. Iíve done a bunch of records now, and I want to reach out to people that I may notóor mayóget a chance to play with whose playing I really dig, like Roy Hargrove or MíShell Ndegeocello, who are on Who Let The Cats Out. Roy and MíShell both sat in once at a gig at 55 Bar, while Iíd already played with people like Victor Wooten and Dennis Chambers. Big Neighborhood even has guys who arenít 'in the jazz orbit,' like Eric Johnson and Steve Vai.
Iíve wanted to hook up with Medeski, Martin & Wood for ages. During the Ď90s I played a lot with Ben Perowsky, whoís a great drummer. Ben introduced me to Billy Martin. Billy told me heíd checked my stuff out when he was in Boston, so heíd known me for a while. Iíd forgotten that Bob Moses, who I played with on gigs a long time ago, also had told me about BillyóBilly reminded me that Bob was his good friend. So anyway, Iíve wanted to do something with them, and I had these tunes, and again acted on my instincts.
Did the tunes come first, or the personnel?
Both. Sometimes I wrote the tune with somebody in mind, or I tweaked a tune (or the beginning of a tune) that I already had, or something was already written and I thought this would be perfect for this person.
Do you feel you have a particular harmonic language? Are there things that are recognizably Mike Stern about your compositions?
I think so. I havenít thought about it so much. Some things Iím not sure if I write first with the bassline or if I write with some chords. I usually write on just the guitar. Some things I actually sing the melody and write it down; Iím singing the melody and playing the chordsóa singer-songwriter vibe almost. When I write it down, I think, 'The saxophone can play this part.' Esperanza sings on Big NeighborhoodóI thought, 'Well, she can sing this piece, so Iíd better check it out with her range and ask her.' I had a chance to do that when I ran into her in the airport, coming back from the Red Sea Festival, and I said, 'Hereís the tune I want you to sing; can you sing this?' I played her a little bit. She said, 'Perfect,' and started singing it. It was a cool, natural way to check it out. But that lyrical or more singable focus is one way I write a tune. Other tunes are coming more from bebop, are really meant to be played. Maybe Iíll put them over a funk bassline, say, but the melody is more intricate. On this record, 'Coupe de Ville' has a funky vibe but is really a bebop tune, based on a standard, in this case.
Harmonically, itís hard to say. Different tunes go different places. Iíve written a bunch of tunes, and Iím fortunate to come up with whatever the hell I can come up with. I donít take anything for granted.
Most of the repertoire on these recordings are originals by you. Itís as if you have separate files of activities, different influences...
Different influences. I really feel more strongly... Two great examples of this are Bill Frisell and Scoówe kind of came up together in Boston. Iíve known Bill for yearsóI met my wife through him. Iíve also known Sco for years. We played with Miles together. The guitar really lends itself to checking out a bunch of different kinds of music, especially after the Ď60s. There was an explosion of guitar everywhere. More than youíd want to hear! But thereís a lot of it in rock music. Thereís a lot in pop music, in country music, and, of course, in jazz. Thereís a lot in classical. Thereís tons of Bach originally written for lute thatís transcribed for guitar. Thereís a ton of stuff. At the very least, you can relate to it in a certain way, even if itís not your favorite kind of music. Billís got a lot of country stuff in his playing. Heís great at playing standards; heís listened to a lot of that. He listens to some rock, as you can hear when he turns on the distortion. Sco, of course, has a lot of funk in his playing, he plays the shit out of standards, you hear country licksóhe can do a whole bunch of things.
Thatís the nature of the instrument. It blurs boundaries. So when Iím writing, to a certain point, some of it is just from being eclectic in that way. I consider myself, as I said, 'a jazz musician.' Itís my favorite kind of music, and most of the stuff I actually practice and listen to is 'traditional jazz.' A lot of times itís not guitarists. I check out and listen to horn players the most. I just dig it.
All the Sonnys! Actually Iíve been playing with Sonny Fortune with the Four Generations of Miles. George Coleman isnít feeling like playing so much lately, so Sonny Fortune is doing it, whoís got tons of energy, tons of soul, and playing his ass off. Heís an older guy, too. And Jimmy Cobb comes on like a kid! Heís got his drums all set up and heís always ready to play.
Do you see yourself as the same person in all of these situations? Are you in the same mind space when youíre rocking out with these guitarists on Big Neighborhood as in Four Generations of Miles?
Yeah, kind of. You can hear it. Itís just the way I play. Eventually, it coalesces into a style. Certainly, thereís a little bit of bebop lines even in the first tune, 'Big Neighborhood,' which is kind of a Jimi Hendrix thing. I hear some of the bebop stuff that I play. I canít just say, 'Ok, now let me play Rock.' It doesnít fit into a nice little box like that, which I think is a good thing. Itís just what I do. Itís my style. Anybody else has a better vantage point than me, because I canít judge my own playing. I just know I put my heart and soul into doing a record or a live gig, and do the best I can every time. But most people tell me that they can hear my voiceówhether Iím playing more straight-ahead with Four Generations of Miles, or a bebop tune on this record, or playing the first tune, which is more rocked-out, they can hear the similarities.
Letís talk guitar stuff. Is the sound from the guitar or from the fingers?
I think eventually itís from what you hear in your head. It kind of settles to that. You pick the guitar you want, and you may make a compromise. Sometimes those fat archtop guitars are unbelievably great. But if you turn them up too loud, they sound a little twangy or sometimes donít have the same kind of singing quality, or they feed back. So itís a little difficult if you want to rock a littleóyou have to use two guitars. I usually just settle on one and say, 'thatís enough; let me just cut to the chase.' Iím after a singing kind of sound, a fatter sound than most solid-body guitarsóI use a solid-body guitar. I used to use an old Fender Telecaster that used to belong to Roy Buchanan. Actually, I bought it from Danny Gatton, who was a friend of his. Danny said, 'Iíve got to buy a used car, so give me $500.' It was a beauty, a priceless guitar. Anyway, it was stolen from me years later, but a guy in Boston had seen me play with that guitar, and built me a guitar like it. Then Yamaha wanted to endorse me and make a Mike Stern model, so they copied that one and added their own flavor to it. So I use a Tele-style guitar, a really cool-sounding guitar. I use with two amplifiers, a little bit of chorus, and a little bit of delay for more air.
In terms of my approach, I pick really light. I pick every string, every note, but I try to pick so itís not like typing. Itís more conversational, where you swallow some syllables and other syllables come out more. Iím trying to get that happening, and also more of a singing quality, sometimes bending strings more. Thatís always what Iíve heard in my mind. And more of a horn-like approach. Iím transcribing horn players all the time, trying to get that on the guitar. So the way I set it up with the equipment is one aspect of it, and probably most of it is I hear in my brainóthen I try to play like that.
When I wrote about you for Downbeat a few years ago. John Scofield said something that I thought was fascinating. He said: 'One of the challenges on the guitar is to try to get a legato, horn-like phrasing. Frisell, Pat Metheny and I do it by not picking every note. But if you do pick every note, you can get a precise attack. The problem with that style is that it can sound real mechanical; some guitar players try to do it, and itís sloppy and weird. Mike can produce a beautiful legato sound but be absolutely accurate on his lines. I donít think Iíve met anybody who does that the way Mike can, and he could do it when I first met him.'
I think John is exaggerating. When I first met John in a little rehearsal studio with a guy he was friends with named Ronnie Bishop. I saw Sco recently, and we tried to track what happened to Ronnie Bishop, but we donít know. Ronnie was a badass vibes player. Anyway, John was playing more bebop back then, and he was smokiní! I said, 'Man, you sound great; whatís your name?' He said, 'Aw, Iím not playing good. I suck. My name is John Scofield.' He was like that for years, and always playing his ass off. This is when I first went to Berklee, when I was playing more blues and rock. Berklee. Iíd go to check him out, and then I guess after a few years had passed from when he first actually heard me play, I might have had that horn-like approach a little bit more together. The thing is, I just kind of settled on my approach. You do what you do naturally, and say, 'This is what it feels like.' I tried the other approaches that John mentionedósometimes I do a little bit of that. But picking every note just seemed natural, and I could get that horn-like approach I was looking foróor close enough to it.
People also cite your practice habits, which are prodigious. Frisell said that he met you after you got off the road with Blood, Sweat & Tears, maybe around Ď78, and the two of you would practice at your apartment for hours.
All the time, weíd play.
The way Bill put it: 'Mike was and still is thorough. He would work on every possible thing he could think of. We did ear-training exercises, trying to hear different harmonic structures against a certain note and testing each other. He did it to the point where I couldnít believe what he was hearing. All the elements you hear in his playing now were there in his apartment in the 70s.' What were you doing in the Ď70s?
I was studying with Charlie Banacos, a very famous teacher and an incredible player, who I still study with. Nothing surprises him. Ages ago, he was a real prodigy. He told me that when he was 12 years old, playing piano somewhere, Erroll Garner walked by, and said, 'Thatís me in there playing!' Charlie checked out all these great musiciansóof course, lots of piano players, lots of different musicians. He teaches for all instruments, but not THE instrument. He teaches ear training, harmony, different methods of getting certain bags together that heís figured out a way to teachóalways incorporating a lot of ear training and transcribing so it becomes real. Heíll give you a cold concept to practice, and then say, 'Ok, transcribe this for this lesson,' and then it makes more sense. Charlie has always been a big push for me. Iím still studying with him, though I donít do but three lessons a week. I donít do but three lessons a week. My practice habits have gone away! Iím getting lazy!
But I still practice every day and play every dayóI mean, every day. I love it. Usually itís easy, but sometimes itís hard, like pulling teeth. Youíre trying to get some new stuff together, and youíve got to write out things in different keys, and so on. But at the gig, it gives you a freshness. Sometimes it doesnít feel like anything new is coming out, but three years later youíll listen to a take and say, 'Shit, what was I working on back then? Thatís different than whatís happening now.' You hear it. So Iím always trying to push whatever my potential is.
So the practice has been consistent over 35-40 years.
Yes. For me, it had to be, because Iím not the sharpest knife in the drawer, as they say. It took me a while to get some of this stuff together. Then all of a sudden, it kind of clicked. The first time I had a lesson with Pat Metheny, he was 18 and teaching at Berklee. Heíd already been teaching some at the University of Miami. It just happened quick for Pat, and he got to a really high level, kind of fast.
You went to Berklee in 1971?
Yeah, I went there in Ď71, then I took a year off and played in a rock-and-roll band and blues bands in D.C., then I came back. So I studied a total of about two years with Pat, kind of off-and-on. He liked my playing. He said, 'thereís something there ...' One thing that I did have, he felt, was a really strong time feel. Miles said the same thing. He used to call me 'Fat Time.' That was my nickname until I lost weight, and then he used to call me 'Time.' [DOES MILESí VOICE] 'No more Fat Time, huh? Ok. Time!'
So that was one thing that I think I had, but the rest of it really came slow. It was really hard. Students ask me all the time, like, 'How do I get my jazz stuff together? Itís really hard.' I say, 'Well, no shit! This is what I did.' Usually itís a lot of transcribing, or get a teacher and learn where the notes are on the guitar. I mean, I was starting from scratch. Before I got into jazz, I was listening to rock and blues, and playing along with those records. My mom played a lot of jazz records around the house ...
Have I read that she was a music teacher?
No, a musician, not professional, but plays a lot of classical music around the house, on records, and on pianoóshe used to play a lot of Bach. Sheíd play a little jazz on the piano. But not much. More just records. I took some of those records to my room to try to play along with, like the rock records and the blues. I got totally lost. I dug the music, and I thought it would be a good way to at least expand, as I felt I was in a rut with my rock and blues playing. Then one thing led to another, I went to Berklee, and I started really falling in love with jazz. I said to myself, 'No matter how long this takes and no matter what comes of it, Iím going to try to learn how to get fluent with this language, to a point where at least I can play with some emotion.' At first, like any other language, you have to start slow. You can barely order breakfast, or whatever. Youíre scuffling with the words and the concepts, the verb conjugationsóall the logistics of a language. The same with jazz for me. It took forever, and it was kind of embarrassing to play with other people. Iíd push myself to do it, even though I was shy about it, and hitting wrong notes left and right. Pat Metheny was very supportive. I played a couple of things with him, hit wrong notes left and right, but apparently they were in a groove, so he said, 'Youíve really got some stuff going on.'
Because of the time.
Because of the time and the touch, I think. And I guess maybe I was hitting more right notes than it felt like. So I just kept going, and then it got better. I had to put in a lot of practice to do it.
Weíre going to regurgitate some well-documented history here. But it was Metheny who gave you the recommendation for Blood, Sweat & Tears, which was your first major gig.
Exactly. Bobby Colomby told Pat they were going to audition some guitar players, and Pat told me I should go and try out. I figured it would show me what itís like to audition for a gig, but I was sure I wouldnít get it. Somehow I got the gig, which surprised the hell out of me. Some really terrific players from New York were trying for that gig, and they seemed more advanced than me. I guess the fact that I could rock a little was what they were also looking for. Anyway, I got the gig. They liked me and they were helping me along. At first, I was scared to play with a band, like, all of a sudden, in front of a whole bunch of people.
That was a great band.
It was a really great band. At that point, Larry Willis was playing keyboards, Bobby Colomby was still playing drums, Lew Soloff (he sits in with me a lot at the 55 Bar), and at one point Don Alias, who played percussion for a while, took Bobbyís place on drums. Jaco was in the band, too. Iíd met him before, but thatís where I got tight with Jaco.
Before we proceed, Iíd like to discuss the milieu at Berklee in the Ď70s. Youíve mentioned yourself, Scofield, and Pat Metheny, and all of you seem to have been checking out Mick Goodrick at the time. Can we ascertain any overriding continuities or connections amongst these guitarists?
Mick was a big factor for everybody. Heís an amazing writer and guitarist. He was playing with Gary Burton at the time, then Pat Metheny moved to Boston from Miami to teach at Berklee, mainly to play with Gary Burton. At one point, the two of them were playing together with Bob Moses and Steve Swallow. It was an incredible band, especially live. Pat was playing electric 12-string guitar then. A very cool sound, an amazing band. Of course, Pat inspired a lot of people, but we had a big connection with Mick as a kind of guru for everybody. He was and continues to be an incredible improviser, making huge strides on the instrument. I heard him by accident a couple of years ago when I was in Chile. They were broadcasting a jazz festival late night on TV, and I heard this guitar player playing solo. 'What the fuck?' It was on a nylon-string guitar. It sounds like heís improvising; it sounds like Bach improvised. I turned around, and it was Mick. They had a closeup of him playing with Charlie Hadenís Liberation Orchestra. Charlie was just smiling, Mick was soloing, then the band came in. It was unbelievable.
Then also, I think we were in a generation where people were including a rock sound in their jazz guitar playing. So if you wanted to sound like a horn player, there were ways to do that a little bit more. More legato kind of phrasing. Hendrix and B.B. King and a lot of the other rockers and blues guys also sing, so they tended to make the guitar sound more vocal, and introduced into jazz guitar a more legato kind of sound, with more bending of strings. Mick Goodrick was one of the first guys that I remember having that in Boston, for instance.
Youíve mentioned in a number of interviews that when you got into Blood, Sweat & Tears, you were interested in trying to play like Jim Hall, an abstract, very harmonic approach, and you were told that this was lovely but not exactly apropos for the context.
Exactly. Not for that context. I was told by Jaco Pastorius. I was totally into Jim, and still am. Heís so melodic! Sometimes I think (and Mick used to say this) that peopleís voices on the instrument are defined as much by what you canít do as what you can do. Jim told me that when he first came to New York City, two of the first guys he heard playing in clubs were George Benson and Pat Martino, so he wanted to turn around and go home! He said, 'the hell with it.' He said he had to find something new and do it his way. Because he doesnít have a lot of chops, he builds excitement and, of course, beauty, and he creates tension by his choice of notes and the melodies he makes.
But Blood, Sweat & Tears was a big band vibe, and we were playing 'Spain,' a really fast Latin groove, Bobby Colomby was playing loud, everybody was very aggressive, playing burning solos. Now, I didnít have a lot of technique or chops. I was still in the mode of doing something which I would recommend to everybody learning any kind of music, which is to start off slow at first, because otherwise you let your fingers run and you donít hear what youíre playing. My solo started off melodic, and the energy just kept going down-down-down. I couldnít get it happening. The more I tried, the worse it got. After the gig, in the dressing room, I was bummed out. Larry Willis and all the horn players were letting me be. 'The kid will get it together, heís young, heís learning.' They were giving me some space. Jaco comes up to me, and in his inimitable, subtle fashion, he says, 'Hey, Stern, man, you know that solo you played on ĎSpainí just now, man? That shit wasnít happening at ALL, man!' We were really close. He said, 'Look, youíve got to get your chops together. Youíve got to hit up against the time.' Thatís the way he always put it. He said: 'Youíre ready to do that. I really appreciate who you listen to and that you want to hear what youíre playing first, but youíre ready to push it. So start practicing faster tempos, and start going home and doing whatever you do to practice that.'
So I started taking 'Donna Lee' or 'Cherokee' or some of these faster tunes, and pushing the metronome up a bit every time I played the head. Mick Goodrick had also told me this before, that sometimes when you practice something a little bit faster than you can play, then, when you slow it down, you feel you have all the time in the world to think about what youíre going to play next. Itís as much of a thinking thing as it is physical. Some guys are playing fast, but theyíre not really hearing the phrasing that fast. You have to get your brain in shape, and I was ready to do it at that point. Chops can really in certain contexts; theyíre right for a certain vibe and a certain kind of tune.
Now, Jim Hall, on 'The Bridge,' which is a very fast tune, just plays snippets. He doesnít burn down a bunch of 8th notes. The rhythm section plays softer behind him. Iím sure he talked to them, or they just got it. Theyíre very sensitive players, and it was a group, and theyíd played together for a while, so they got the idea that you should play a little softer here and a bit more lyrically, and weíll play the time and heíll play little snippets of the melody. He figured out a way of doing it. So thereís ways of playing fast without a lot of chops. But hitting right up against the time, as Jaco put it, was something that I wanted to do, because Iíd heard a lot of Trane and Sonny Rollinsóand of course, Jaco. I went for that, and worked it out a little bit.
So you knew Jaco Pastorius by the time you joined Blood, Sweat & Tears.
Yes, I knew him. I met him a long time ago in Florida. I was living in Washington, D.C. then, and I went down there with some friends to hang out for a few days, and I happened into this little club. There was a rock band playing, we were having some drinks ... I was drinking quite a bit in those days, and have since let all that stuff go, out of necessity. At the break, Jaco gets up (I didnít know who he was) with this trio. People were talking, yapping away, but he was burning. He was looking right at the audience, smiling, and no one was listeningóthey wanted to hear a rock band and dance and whatever. It was killing. I went up to him, and I said, 'My nameís Mike, and Iím going to be going to Berklee next year.' He said, 'Yeah, thatís a music school in Boston, right? Yeah, man, I heard of it.' Anyway, about three years later, I heard him with Pat. I went up to him and said, 'Did I ever meet you before?' He said, 'Yeah, your nameís Mike, man. I remember you, man. The Flying Machine inm...' He had a photographic memory. He remembered the whole thing. He was burning both times I heard him. Then we played with Blood, Sweat & Tears together for a couple of years after that. He had just done his first record, Jaco Pastorius, with Bobby Colomby. Ron McClure had just left the band, they were looking for somebody to transition with another bass player, and since Bobby had just recorded with him, he asked Jaco to do the band for a little while, and Jaco said, 'Yeah, Iíll do it for three months.' 'Spinning Wheel' never sounded so good.
Talk about playing with Billy Cobham. His band was very big at the time, probably a different feel than Blood, Sweat & Tears.
Yeah, that was more open. More instrumental. Blood, Sweat & Tears still had David Clayton Thomas. We were playing all the hits and all that stuff. The band wasnít as famous as it had been, but it was still a big crowd. Billy played at some big jazz festivals, and some clubs, too. But he was very well-known, as he still is, the two bass drums and all that. People donít realize that Billy can swing his ass off, but we were playing more jazz-rock stuff. Iíd been at Berklee, playing mainly bebop gigs with Jerry Bergonzi and some more electric stuff with Tiger Okoshi, the great trumpet player. Then Billy called, and I did that gig for a while, with Gil Goldstein, Tim Landers on bass, Michael Urbaniak on violin ...
You mentioned the palpable growth that occurred during your time with BST. How did Cobham affect your development?
Just playing off of the drums more, in that context. Iíd already been doing that, but the way he got up behind me, when I would push on the distortion and kind of rock a little... He has a way (heís amazing at it) of going with the solo, with whomever is playing the solo, to be very supportive and just behind you, and build with you and all that kind of stuff, especially when we were on the road, playing on a regular basis. Billy continues to be great at that. Because heís got so much stuff, itís hard to pin him down. He does more things than a lot of people. Basically, I try to do my band, and then if I do something else, itís the Yellowjackets. Well, Billyís doing the Grateful Dead and different projects all over the place, all the time. I learned a lot with him. We did a couple of my tunes. I was practicing all the time, learning a lot. From Gil Goldstein, tooówe were playing together all the time. Iíd just grab people and want to play all the time, even on our days off.
We were playing in New York at the Bottom Line, and Bill Evans, the saxophonist, who Iíd played with in Boston at a place called Michael's, called me at the break and said, 'Guess who I'm going to bring down. Play your ass off!' He brought Miles, and I guess Miles dug the gig. We were playing a tune, and all of a sudden the drums were gone. Miles had called Billy off the bandstand, and he said, 'Tell your guitar player to be at Studio B on Tuesday.' He wanted me to play over a tune they'd already recorded. I said, 'Miles, this doesn't need nothin', it sounds great.' But I tried. He wanted me to do almost like a Bitches Brew thing, but they were at the same time playing ... A week later we did a tune live that had a long guitar solo, which he hadnít titled, but he liked the guitar solo so much, he called it after my nickname, 'Fat Time.' As we were leaving the session, Miles said, 'That was a motherfucker; weíre gonna go on the road.' I said, 'Great. Whoís playing keyboards?' He said, 'No keyboard. Just you.' Just guitar. So I thought, here Iím playing with Miles and thereís no keys, and Iíll be so exposedóIím scared to death. Thatís what he wanted. He wanted a real lean sound, which is a cool sound. I was into it anyway. I used to play a lot with Jerry Bergonzi for the same reason. Sometimes piano is a richer instrument, and sometimes keyboard players donít leave as much space; they tend to play a lot, because itís right there in front of them, and they can reach for a lot. Itís incredible, and why not? But there are times when you just want to hear two-note voicings, or nothingójust lay out. Of course, anybody can do that. I do that a lot. I just like to hear bass, drums, and the soloist, a lot of times.
Anyway, I did this with Miles. That was '80, and I played with him off-and-on for about three years. Then I needed to take a break, because I was getting kind of crazy personally, kind of imbibing a little bit too much. I was doing everything. Drinking too much, doing everything. I was missing flights to get to gigs. Finally, Miles had had it. He said, 'Call John Scofield.' I was surprised John didnít get the gig in the first place, because it was in New York, but apparently Miles had heard John on a gig that was not the best for Miles to hear him on. Sco was probably playing his ass off, but in the context of the music, he couldnít tell whether that would work. Barry Finnerty, who was great, was originally doing the gig, but it just didnít work personally between them.
You left Miles for a yearn ...
Yes, I went with Jaco! Jaco was actually taking care of me. That will give you an idea of how bad I was at that point. And Miles had tried to put me in a rehab before that, and I wasnít ready. If Miles wants to put you in a rehab, you know youíve got something wrong. He was really scared. Gil Evans also, who smoked pot 'til the day he died, but it wasnít much compared to what the hell I was taking. They used to come down and say, 'Look, itís not funny any more. Youíre going to die.' At that point, I thought, 'well, thatís the way itís meant to be; thereís no way I can stop this shit.' Iíd been to some therapy, Iíd already been hospitalized, all that stuff, and nothing seemed to work.
Itís striking that you were able to practice so much in the midst of that.
I was still able to do that. That was like my life raft. Thatís the thing that saved me. Music and positive things are stronger than negative things, in a lot of ways. For instance, Leni and I were like Sid and Nancy Vicious. She was in it, too. We were living above this place called 55 Grand Street ...
Then popularly known as '55 Gram.'
As we used to call it. It was a crazy time. She had to go to rehab first. At one point, she was feeling DTís, she was feeling bugs all over heróall that stuff. So at one point, me and Jaco and her went to this shrink who Iíd seen a few times before, but never was able to keep an appointment with him, and I hadnít seen him for a while. Jaco said, 'Man, we got to help her out!' Finally, I made an emergency appointment, and we actually made it up there only 20 minutes late or something. I was drunk as hell. Jaco was doing all the talking. Jaco was the only person who could put two sentences together at that point, believe it or not. He said, 'Heís ok, but weíve got to do something about her.' Leni went into this rehab, and as soon as she went in, I said, 'Iím going to have to cool out.' So two weeks later, I went into the same one. She was already on her way out. They kept me for a while, because I had been going crazy for so many years. I started when I was 14, the first time I ever shot dope, and I got strung out like a clothesline. At Berklee, I was doing opiates and drinking on top of it; Iíd pretend I wasn't doing heroin, so I was okay, but meanwhile ...
When I came out. Mike Brecker was incredibly supportive. Heíd already taken me to my first AA meeting like a year before, but it never really clicked til a year later. Then he started calling me all the time in the rehab, I called him every day. My sponsor was Jerry Wortman, who is now the road manager for Bob Dylan, who originally was road-managing for Mike, then Pat Metheny. AA was the only thing that worked for me.
Since then, musically, things have gotten so much more ... You expand. You let your heart go where it wants. Not that I couldnít play back when I was getting high, but it would definitely put this strangehold on things.
Thatís a beautiful phrase, 'Your heart can go where it wants.'
It really does. Also, thereís more subtlety. You can color emotions differently through your music in a more subtle wayóor in a stronger, more straight-ahead way. But you feel it differently, more connected to it. It made a big difference in my whole life for me to get sober. Leni and I have a real strong love that carried through, which a lot of times doesnít happen when you get soberóyou break up. We had something really strong, and it was very much the same with the music for me. So I was very lucky to have two very positive things in my life that carried me through.
Let's talk about the dynamics of playing with Miles. Youíve mentioned that he would always change up the arrangement.
For example, on 'Fat Time,' he didn't really rehearse it. We didn't know what the melody was. Marcus Miller would get an idea of what it was, and then jump in, make up a bassline, and lead the way. Miles had kind of a vibe, but I think he played the melody on the spot almost. At one point he went to the piano and said, 'Play a Spanish thing for the bridge,' or something like that, and he played something over A, and then, 'Spanish,' and B-flat. I thought it was a harmonic minor kind of sound, kind of over A7, but I wasn't sure I was going to fit, and how are we going to get back to C-minor? We played it through twice, recording both times. At first he said something to me, try to do this or that, and then I felt unsure, and he said, 'Just play it your way!' Then he let go and said, 'Play.' Then Bill Evans came up to me and just said, 'Play with a lot of energy; he wants a lot of energy.'
Did playing with Miles test all your musical resources at that time?
Yeah, I would say so. Because also, how to comp behind him was ... I really had to listen. He used to like it when I'd lay a chord underneath one of his notes. So I needed to know what pitch he was playing, and I really had to listen a lot.
Were his chops pretty consistent during that time?
For a while they were. Then he got pneumonia. He actually suffered a minor stroke during the first time I was with him, so he had to cancel some gigs. When we recorded We Want Miles, on some of that he had pneumonia, and his chops were kind of downóbut it was still Miles.
Anyway, back to his liking you to comp.
Well, I really had to be on my toes. You always had to be with him anyway, because sometimes we'd get used to an arrangement, and he would kind of change it on us at the last minute. The first band was very open. It's like he was searching at the same time. No one really knew what he wanted to do!
The second time with Miles was a lot different than the first time. He had two keyboard players, and he was more on his way to doing the more arranged stuff with Marcus, like Tutu and 'Time After Time,' that direction of doing pop tunes of the day ...
He was recreating himself musically at that time.
Yes. And he got Marcus and Al Foster, which in itself was totally unique. Marcus was coming from more of a funk kind of place, but definitely had a great jazz sensibility on the electric bass, and could walkóyou could tell he was into that music. And Al could rock if he needed to. I've got some live tapesóI heard them recently, and I couldn't believe it. I didn't know who the drummer was at first. It just starts off with somebody playing this rock groove on the drums, Al with probably an 18-inch bass drum, a small kit, and he sounds like, you know, Led Zeppelinóreally beautiful. Just the way he played the time, no matter what he played, it was swinging. Rock, whatever, it was swinging. But what an interesting rhythm section. I didn't get it right away, to tell you the truth. I thought, 'Shouldn't we have a little bit more arrangements, shouldn't we ...? Well, it's Miles, so I've got to go along with it; he's the bandleader, and it's Miles Davis.' But I thought some of this is going to fall flat on its face. Some of it wasn't so happening, and some of it was amazing. That's kind of what he was looking for.
Then the band started gelling more as we got into it. Six months down the road, everybody knew each other more, and ... The very first gig was funóin Boston, at a club. Then the first one in Avery Fisher Hall wasn't happening. Some of it was recorded on We Want Miles, and there was more happening on the recording. But Avery Fisher Hall ...
A difficult space.
It's terrible! I heard Stan Getz there, and I thought that would be burning because it was softer, and still you couldn't really hear him. You could kind of pick out the notes, but they would blend together. There's too much reverb in the room. So you can imagine when we were playing this ... and he wanted me to play loud.
Miles was a musician who legendarily used a lot of space and implication in his playing. You're a musician who plays a lot. I'm not using the word pejoratively, but you're a florid player. You have a lot of technique, you're not afraid to use it, and you make it fluid. In what ways were you influenced by Miles' style that might not be immediately evident?
Well, first of all, I understood that he didn't want me to do what he did.
To this day, though.
But to this day, there are times when I've got him in my ear. There are a couple of tunes on These Times, for example, that are more lyrical, and I'm trying to hear Miles in my playing, how he would leave space, and it's more like that. When I was playing with him, I kind of felt he was doing the space kind of playing and he wanted more aggression. When I first started playing with Miles, it took a minute for some critics to warm up to that sound. Miles told me, 'Don't listen to those cats.' He just said, listen to him, listen to what he wanted. And he wanted me to rock. He said, 'Play me some Hendrix.' That's what he always said.
He wanted you as a contrast.
Exactly. And he definitely made it very clear that's what he wanted. It was trio. With the keyboard player, which wasn't recorded as much, I could leave more space, and it felt more of a natural thing to do in that case. He actually had me play some acoustic, nylon-string; I had an electric-acoustic guitar that I brought on the road, and he wanted me to do that some. But basically, for the first band with Marcus and Al, streamlined like it was, he wanted some more burn, and he would leave all the space, and when it came down to it he wanted more Rock and more energy, and he'd signal Al with his hands to open up more behind meóto play louder and more cymbals and that kind of stuff. It was almost like he was working with shapes. Because a lot of times, it was single chords, easy vamps, and they'd go on for a while. So you had to kind of milk it for whatever you could ...
Did you learn from that? Is that notion of working with large, extended shapes, and music as painting ... did it rub off on you?
Definitely. Also the singing quality of how he approached the something. As I said, I've always tried to get a sound with a singing quality, more of a legato sound rather than a percussive ... Guitar is by nature more of a percussive instrument, or can be in some ways...kind of a combination ... But it can be more percussive than how I use it, how I like it. Anyway, Miles had that vocal, beautiful sound, and Iíve tried to cop as much as I can the way he phrased and his sensibility in that regardómy way of doing it, of course.
Youíve been sober for 25 years, which pretty much coincides with the duration of your gig at the 55 Bar, where you played last night and are playing tomorrow night. You told me how it started, you played there with Jeff Andrews.
Jeff Andrews, a great bass player. I was still playing at 55 Grand Street (thereís no connection between the two), and Leni and I still were living above the bar there. But Jeff found this other place, a tiny room, and Iíve always loved playing those kinds of places because you feel more comfortable doing new stuff.
Thatís an incredible way to do R&D, isnít it, to have that sort of home base where you can do anything you want.
You can, and rehearse, or get together with different players and do some of the same stuff. In some ways, just because itís in New York and I get a chance to play with a lot of players, thatís influenced these last couple of records. Certainly on the road, I put together bands with different people, too. But at the 55 Bar, itís loose as hell. A bunch of people have played there with me, playing standards, playing some of my own tunes, playing all kinds of stuff. Itís reinforced an opennessóchecking out different players, and the excitement of hearing somebody play. Sometimes Iíll play the same tune with different players, and itís a whole different tune because of the way they play the drums, or the way they play bass, or whatever.
More than many male musicians your age, youíve brought in a lot of female musicians, particularly drummers and bass playersóKim Thompson, Teri Lyne Carrington, and Cindy Blackman, as well as M'Shell Ndegeocello and Esperanza Spalding.
True. But itís coincidental. I met Cindy, for instance, years ago in Boston, at Berklee, and I also met Teri Lyne in BostonóI knew her dad a bit. We never played, but he always said, 'You guys got to play together.' So I knew her a little bit, and then we toured together some. Esperanza is somebody I just knew about, who has a beautiful voice, but if she couldnít sing I would use her just as a bass player, because sheís an extraordinary bass player.
So some of it happened coincidentally, but also, remember, my wife is a guitar player. We have a little rule that weíve reinforced (though weíll probably bend it sooner or later) that we donít do too many gigs togetheróweíd rather stay married! You look at people who go on the road together or do records together, some friction happens, and then if you have to go home with the same musician youíre having friction and youíre married to them ... Realistically, we figured maybe we shouldnít push that too much. Itís nice that we have our own careers and our own musical directions, and Leni certainly has very strong musical directions. I donít know where she comes up with half the stuff. I like her records a lot more than mine. Maybe I shouldnít say that. But personally, I really do. I think the way she puts them together is great. On her first record, there was hardly any budget, but she brought in Bill Frisell, Paul Motian, Larry Willis, Bob Berg. I said, 'Youíre not ready to do a record yet.' I hadnít done my first one sober yet. But she went in and did it, and it was killing. That pushed me to do mine. I let her go first. Iíve recorded a couple of her tunes, and a lot of people like them better than anything on the record.
But I like just anybody who plays their ass off. If they happen to be girls, thatís better. Theyíre nicer to hang out with. Theyíre prettier than guys, too!
Also, a lot of younger musicians. So much traffic passes across your bandstand at the 55 Bar, so many ideas about music-making from different languages and cultures ... Are musicians under 35 coming through a very different set of experiences and formative influences and expressing different attitudes to music than from your generation?
Itís cool to play with younger musicians, and you learn a whole lot. For example, Kim Thompson comes up with creative, incredible stuff from things from hip-hop and styles that I wasnít as into. Sheíll tell me to check something out. But then, she was writing a tune on the computer thatís mainly a groove. I said, 'Kim, youíve got to write a bridge; this needs a bridge.' Iíd heard her with Kenny Barron, and she played great with Kenny, so I was surprised. When we first hooked up, we were just playing standards. I didnít know that she could play funky, that she was into all that. Sheís been playing with Beyonce for quite some time. I learned a lot from just her vantage point. You hear it, obviously, on radio and TV and so on, but you get it differently from somebody whoís in that world.
I also learn a lot from younger people who I donít play with. Iíve transcribed a bit of Kurt Rosenwinkelís stuff, because itís so beautiful, and I can hear where heís coming from. I hear some Mick Goodrick influences, because I think Kurt is another generation that was also influenced by Mick. Heís a fantastic musician. Iím always checking out older players, too. Sonny Rollins. His earlier stuff never gets old. Itís always fresh.
When you play bebop, you do have a way of breaking up the thematic material and improvising along those lines. Would that be a direct influence from Sonny?
Sonny is definitely a big influence. But the way it works out is abstract, by osmosis, from listening a lot. Iíll transcribe a lot of things. I like to use certain phrasing, I guess, from different horn players without memorizing licks so much. Sometimes youíll hear a phrase of Sonnyís, a strong melody that you heard and just wrote out. Itís like reading a good book, and you come away from the book with a few quotes. 'Oh, the author said it like this,' and I remember how he said it, and then you take it and find your own ideas that way.
Will you continue to hew to that distinction Joe Henderson made to you between recording and playing, or will you give people more of an opportunity to hear your R&D directly? Youíve said that the 55 Bar is an acoustic challenge.
Itís a challenge, but itís not impossible, and at some point I may just say, 'Well, go for it anyway.' I definitely want to do it, because Iíve been playing there so long, itís so comfortable, and I could get different cats to come in and record. It wouldnít be expensive, and Iíd love to do it. There is a way to do it. You have to put a microphone further in the back so you get more ambiance from the drums, otherwise the drums are overpowering. I did do a little educational video there with Ned Mann and Ari Hoenig that came out well. It was recorded with a hand-held camera, and we used just the mike from that, and also sometimes a really good engineer was there, miking the bass a little bit more.
But philosophically, do you prefer people to hear this finished product...
Well, this DVD is one night that we did. Most of the time now, people want a live performance, and they want to see it as well. Thatís a little tricky. Seeing is cool, but I like to hear. But I also like a good live recording, and I definitely want to try to do something at the 55 Bar.
So that 'big neighborhood' theme really does apply to what youíve done at the 55 Bar over the years.
Totally. It really does. Also, just touring. You meet so many musicians literally all over the place, who bring their own music that isnít jazz that you get influenced by. You realize that music connects in so many different ways, which is beautiful. But more specific to the 55 Bar, it is a place thatís in a big neighborhood. Itís in New York. Itís in the heart of Greenwich Village.
There is something counter-intuitive for an artist as visible and well-known within the international community as you are to make yourself 'local.' A lot of musicians might feel theyíd get taken for granted, it would drive down their price.
Itís true. Iím surprised that the Iridium still hires meóor the Blue Note, which is right down the street. Iíve somehow gotten away with it. But I wouldnít give it up. At one point, I just said, 'Well, thatís the way it is; then Iíd go on the road to do other gigs.' But Iíve got to have a place to play as thereís one that can keep me playing. It keeps me kind of sane, and itís a cool spot to play. If it werenít there, Iíd find a street-corner somewhere. Iíve got to find these little places George Coleman told me that when he was coming up, there were places (and Buster Williams told me the same thing) where they would play five sets. The guy would say, 'Five sets, forty minutes, twenty minutes off,' and youíd have to do that. Then in the morning, there would be a bebop breakfast gig. What happened to that? Itís gone. They had more places and you could get longer engagements. Miles told me the same thing, that he and Bird ... Maybe he was exaggerating, maybe not. He said theyíd play the same tune for 8 hours. They would stretch it out, and theyíd be playing all the time. He said, 'Cats donít play that much any more.' That was the one point he made, that itís so important to play and play and play. Guys were playing
Youíre 56, and traveling is not easy.
No, itís getting harder. Thatís kicking my ass a little bit, but I love to play. I was just talking to Bill Frisell, because I saw him with McCoyís band. Itís such an interesting hookup. The way they play is so different. Itís like Jim Hall with Sonny. One time Miles sat in with Trane, and apparently it didnít make it at all. To me, this made it. It was very different. Billís just doing his thing, and itís charming, and I love it. Bill said, 'Oh, you should do this gig; youíre more in this world'óbecause I check out McCoy all the time. But thereís something great about Bill doing it, because heís thinking, 'Oh, shit, what am I doing here ...'
In any event, do you see yourself keeping up this kind of schedule?
I was talking to Billy about going on the road, because heís got his family, his daughter is older, and his wife is a painter ... He said, 'Look, this is what I do.' I was bitching about the travel. I said, 'What else can I do? Teach? What else can we do?' He said, 'I love to play, and this is what you have to do to play.' So thatís probably what Iíll be doing for the foreseeable future. Though I love to teach also. I get into that Charlie Banacos thing. Heís so full of energy about music. He doesnít over-charge anybody. You have to pay up front, because he has a three-year waiting list or something. He does three full days and then some other stuff, and on his off days, heís still transcribing different stuff. This cat is a master, and heís still like, 'Yeah, man. Oh, man, I canít wait. Iím going to transcribe this new...' And the way he does it. His ears, forget about it. Itís beautiful. Bergonzi is like that, too. Itís independent of everything else. They just keep going.
Ted Panken spoke to Mike Stern on July 28, 2009.