Mike Stern: Music is Endless

October 30, 2007

Mike Stern

Since joining Blood, Sweat Tears at the tender age of 22, Mike Stern has proven himself to be among the finest guitarists of his generation. Later stints with iconic figures such as Billy Cobham, Miles Davis, Jaco Pastorious, David Sanborn, and the Brecker Brothers afforded Stern the opportunities to cement his reputation as a truly superior force in the world of jazz. Stern’s own solo recordings boosted his already meteoric rise and have met with widespread acclaim, earning the axeman numerous “Best Jazz Guitarist” readers’ poll honors and three Grammy nominations. His most recent release, Who Let the Cats Out (Heads Up, 2006), finds Mike joining forces with an impressive cast made up of Richard Bona, Dave Weckl, Kim Thompson, Me’Shell Ndege;Ocello, Victor Wooten, Bob Malach, Jim Beard, Anthony Jackson, and Gregoire Maret.

An alum of Berklee College of Music who, even at this point in his career, still actively studies with a goal towards further refining his craft, Stern is a true music scholar. JAZZed recently had the opportunity to spend a few moments with Mike to discuss his experiences as a student and teacher of music, as well as his time spent collaborating with some of the giants of jazz.

JAZZed: First off, Mike, I just want to thank you for making the time to speak with us.
Mike Stern: Sure, man it’s a pleasure.

JAZZed: How about we start at get this the beginning: How did you first become involved in music?
MS: [laughs] Sounds good. I guess my first instrument was unofficially the voice. I was always yelling and singing around the house. My mom always knew I was into music. She was a pianist who played a lot of classical around the house.

JAZZed: Did she try and get you to take an interest in piano?
MS: Yeah, she wanted me to take piano lessons, so I took a few. I eventually just kind of picked the guitar because I wanted to #149;pick my own instrument’ and I was into it.

JAZZed: What age are we talking about here?
MS: I was about 12 when I took up guitar.

JAZZed: Did you have any instruction to begin with?
MS: I took some guitar lessons, but it didn’t last all that long. It was just mostly about trying to learn how to read a little bit. I was pretty much self-taught to begin with.

JAZZed: What types of music were you playing at that age? What music were you being exposed to?
MS: I grew up in the #149;60s and originally I was listening to a lot of Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, and Motown that kind of stuff. Meanwhile, my mom was playing a lot of classical and jazz music around the house, so I was always hearing that, too, and eventually I got way, way into jazz. As soon as I started getting a taste for it, that’s kind of where I’ve been since.

JAZZed: At what age did you start to make that transition from rock and pop to jazz?
MS: I guess I was about seventeen or eighteen. Also, I wouldn’t say it was necessarily a full transition [my interests] shifted. I didn’t lose the appreciation for rock or anything. In my heart, when I hear certain music, it gets me, no matter what other people might call it, stylistically.

JAZZed: What were some albums or artists that played a role in you getting, as you say, “way, way into jazz?”
MS: Well, Miles, of course. Let me think#149; friends of mine were playing different things and one record I really dug was Miroslav Vitous’ Mountain in the Clouds. Maiden Voyage [by Herbie Hancock] is a classic and I really got into it, as well, and tried to play along with that album.

JAZZed: Was that a big part of your early evolution as a guitarist playing by ear?
MS: Definitely. I had been learning by ear, with the rock and blues stuff, and then I tried to play along with the jazz records and, of course, got lost right away. The keys would change, the melodies were more involved, and all kinds of stuff which for me doesn’t make it “better” music. I think whatever gets to your heart is what’s cool and that’s how you have to judge stuff. I’m not the type of person who believes that if music is more involved cerebrally and has more changes, chords, and intricate melodies it necessarily becomes“better.” By the same token, some stuff that’s arranged and written really simplistically isn’t automatically “worse.” Sometimes the simplest music can get your heart most effectively.

JAZZed: Let’s talk about how you ended up at Berklee and discuss your thoughts on the time spent there.
MS: One summer while I was still in high school, I took classes at Berklee and I just really thought that that would be a cool place for me to go in order to be immersed in learning whatever I could about music in general, but specifically jazz. “Jazz” whatever that is [laughs]!

So after that summer, I went to Berklee for one year and then took a year off and just played in rock bands and blues bands in Washington D.C. Then I went back to school for two more years in a row and then I got a gig with Blood, Sweat Tears.

There was a lot more there that I could’ve gotten into [at Berklee]. A part of me wishes I’d stayed and graduated. I felt like I wanted to go slow and kind of learn at a reasonable pace, so I didn’t take a lot of writing courses. I was really just concentrating on guitar, just trying to get the logistics of the guitar. When I started at school, I was really raw: I didn’t know any of the notes, I didn’t know a lot.

JAZZed: I’m sure you had some natural facility on the instrument, though, and presumably the Berklee professors could see or more accurately hear that.
MS: I don’t know It seemed like it came slow as hell to me. You’re right, though. I guess some teachers had a different opinion. They liked what I was doing and thought I was progressing well. I always just really worked hard at it because nothing comes that fast to me [laughs]. One thing’s for sure, when I want something I certainly do my best to get it, whatever that means. I was putting in a lot of hours practicing.

JAZZed: Can you tell me about some of your teachers at Berklee who stand out as having been influential?
MS: Sure, sure. There’s a guy, John LaPorta, who was the head of the Instrumental Performance course when I was at school. He’s a sax and clarinet player who actually played with Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie an unbelievable teacher, incredibly inspiring. He could take the simplest scale#149; just, say, b-flat pentatonic with added blues notes and make it seem like it was the be-all-end-all. He would sing one note, in this raspy Italian voice, and it was like the sun was coming out he was so excited about it. He just had this incredible energy.

JAZZed: That kind of thing is infectious.
MS: Oh yeah. He reached me and, I know, a lot of other people. John was an amazing teacher and an incredible player. He just understood the energy and the essence of how you’ve got to play from the heart. All of that just came across and I think I learned a lot from him.

He always really liked my awareness of time if there’s something I have that comes naturally it’s my time-feel. I had a good groove. He liked that and would immediately hear something positive that I didn’t even hear. I was hitting all wrong notes, but he heard something. Same thing with Pat Metheney he could hear something worthwhile in what I was doing. I had some really good guitar teachers at Berklee. I liked the whole thing there I learned from everybody I studied with.

JAZZed: I knew you’d played with Pat, but I didn’t realize he was one of your teachers at Berklee.
MS: He taught there when he was 18 and he was already playing his ass off. I’d heard about him from other students “Oh, there’s a new teacher who’s great#149;” so I went to ask if he could fit me into his schedule.

Mike Stern: Pre;cis

Solo Discography: Neesh (Trio); Upside Downside, Time in Place, Jigsaw, Odds or Evens, Standards (and Other Songs), Is What It Is, Between the Lines, Give and Take, Play, Voices, (Atlantic); 4 Generations of Miles (Chesky); These Times (ESC); Who Let the Cats Out (Heads Up).

Awards Accolades: 1993 Guitar Player Critics’ and Readers’ choice for Best Jazz Guitarist of the Year, 1997 Orville W. Gibson Award (Best Jazz Guitarist), Three Grammy nominations (Is What it Is, Between the Lines, Voices), 2007 Miles Davis Award (Montreal Jazz Festival).

Web site: www.mikestern.org

JAZZed: What was your time with Pat like?
MS: It was kind of the same thing [as with John LaPorta]. I kind of scuffled and struggled through the tunes, but Pat really liked it. He said, “You’ve really got something there.” It was wonderful to hear that from both of those guys, because I was really kind of shy and self-critical. All I heard was a lot of wrong notes and I felt like I was scuffling which I was but I guess somewhere in there was some other stuff that was coming through.

JAZZed: It seems like one key thing that your teachers did was simply to alert you to the fact that you were, actually, good.
MS: Yeah that I had some talent. It was reassuring and gave me some confidence. Pat was really helpful in a lot of ways, but we basically just played a lot. He told me that I needed to just play more and that was really helpful. I heard about the audition with Blood, Sweat Tears through him, in fact.

Speaking of great Berklee guys, Larry Senibaldi was another really good teacher at Berklee. He took us through the Bill Leavitt books [A Modern Method for Guitar].

JAZZed: Ah yes we studied Leavitt’s method when I was at Berklee, as well.
MS: Great stuff, right? I still think it’s a great method for learning guitar. It’s so well laid-out and clear. Bill’s more traditional, of course it wasn’t even “hip” traditional jazz, but was still really great and his whole approach to teaching was kind of amazing and still holds up.

JAZZed: No question about that. It’s still a key part of the Berklee syllabus, after all.
MS: Exactly. It is for a lot of other schools, too as it should be. Anyway, Berklee was amazing for me. I think the best aspect was hanging out with people who were after the same things. Eventually that’s how you learn any language and music is a language: you can learn so much in a classroom, but eventually you have to speak the language with others and make a whole lot of mistakes and listen to people who speak the language fluently. Gradually the dialect becomes more unconscious. At first, for me, I was thinking about every chord scale and what the tones were, but then, eventually, I started hearing it, the way you learn any other language. There’s lots of repetition, lots of mistakes, at least in my case! I still make a lot of mistakes it’s part of my style! [laughs]

JAZZed: You’ve collaborated with a number of amazing, legendary artists. I’m sure many of those individuals also served as teachers and mentors, right?
MS: Oh, for sure. I learned probably the most from Michael Brecker. He was just so open if you asked him a question, he’d try to answer it. He was also so humble about music, which I think is the way to go because music is a huge universe and it’s just a journey you go on to try and learn whatever you can. It’s endless and any one person only barely scratches the surface. Mike always understood that fact and he was also always a very warm, kind person. The way he played night after night was just amazing and you could ask him, afterwards, “What the hell was that?” and he’d discuss it with you. I also loved his sensibility, the way he would develop solos he’s a very melodic player, had lots of fire, lots of lines, lots of lyricism.

JAZZed: Who else sticks out as a mentor, other than Michael?
MS: Of course, Miles was similar. I mean Miles was Miles. He had an incredible lyrical approach and a lot of fire, as well. It was a little less schooled, in some ways, so he couldn’t necessarily answer questions I might have in the same way. Mike could be a little clearer about how he got to certain points, what he was thinking about. With Miles it was a little more homegrown, you know? Listening was a bigger part of how he learned; not so much the schooled approach, even though Miles did go to Juilliard. It was a lot more gut-level, instinctive. Mike had that, too, and never lost that, which was great. No matter how cerebral either of those guys sounded, you always heard the blues, you always heard some stuff that was on the ground, from…

JAZZed: They play from the heart.
MS: From the heart exactly! And all the players I’ve been fortunate enough to play with, no matter how they’ve learned what they know, they’ve all played from the heart and let whatever kind of music grab them. It may not have been their favorite or their priority, but they were open to all kinds of stuff.

JAZZed: Can you give me an example of what you’re talking about?
MS: Sure. A while back, I experienced a very memorable week playing with Joe Henderson, Al Foster and Dave Holland at the Blue Note. Before it all came together, though, I told Joe’s manager, “I’m not going to do the gig unless we rehearse at least a little bit, because I don’t want [Joe] to throw tunes at me that I don’t know.” So I was given the number and I called Joe up and he said, “Yeah, yeah we can get together nobody wants to see you struggle with tunes you don’t know.” After that, I called up Al Foster who I knew from playing with Miles and said, “I’m feeling a little more relaxed about doing this gig. Joe’s going to come over and we’re going to rehearse a little bit.” Al laughed and said, “We’ll be lucky if he shows up to the gig! Are you kidding?”

But, anyway, Joe did end up coming over to my place and played for, like, five hours. He sat on the bed in my apartment and we just played and talked a bunch. He was looking through my CD collection at one point and he saw a bunch of stuff that you might’ve expected him to know Sonny Rollins, #149;Traine, Miles, and all kinds of stuff like that. Then he picked up a Stevie Ray Vaughan CD and I said, “What do you think about Stevie?” and Joe said, “Man, Stevie Ray was a mother_____!” [laughs]

JAZZed: In a good way, of course.
MS: Yeah, of course! It was particularly funny because Joe was always so well spoken a brilliant cat. The point being, he was open to any kind of music. He was another guy also would often compare learning music to learning a language.

JAZZed: It’s clear you feel the music-as-language analogy is pretty spot-on.
MS: When you’re learning anything new in music, particularly with jazz, there’s the same awkwardness as when learning a language. It’s awkward as hell to learn any language, for a while, when you’re stumbling, but then you get gradual layers of fluency and then, of course, you can go as far as you like. With any language you can evolve and improve forever, but certainly with music forget about it, the sky’s the limit.

The main thing, to me, is playing from the heart, as we were saying. It’s whatever #149;gets’ you. Some people like stuff that I’m not into, but if a player is dealing with sincerity I already respect him or her. I just kind of let my heart guide me through music. I don’t want to too become lost in the cerebral part of it, although that’s a very important element, too.

JAZZed: Explain?
MS: Well, again, as with any language, it’s more fun and you can express yourself more if you have a larger vocabulary. On the other hand there are people who know a whole lot and it doesn’t seem to add up. Let me put it to you this way: B.B. King can say a whole lot with about two notes.

There are so many cats who’ve really helped me build my vocabulary. Mick Goodrick was an amazing influence on me. I don’t study with him anymore, but I kind of wish I could. I do study correspondence with Charlie Banacos, who’s just amazing.

JAZZed: Tell me about how you teamed up with Charlie?
MS: He’s a piano player and I studied with him in Boston. He came up with another cat that I used to work with a lot, Jerry Bergonzi another guy I’ve learned so much from; an incredible and underrated tenor saxophone player. I think he’s awesome. Anyway, Banacos just teaches. He’s an incredible player, too, but all he does is teach. He has tons of students from all over and a huge waiting list and does correspondence courses, also, which is what I’ve been doing since I left Boston.

JAZZed: So you really are still an active student, even at your level of proficiency?
MS: Yeah man. I feel like I don’t know anything! I’m always trying to just learn, man. To me, like I said, music is endless and there’s a whole lot to learn. Music can be overwhelming because there’s so much to it, but it’s the most beautiful journey in the world. It’s endless and you can’t expect to learn everything, so you just kind of keep your mind and heart open and learn what’s out there.

JAZZed: We’ve talked a lot about your experiences as a student, but can you tell me your thoughts about being on the other side of the fence being a teacher?
MS: Well, I do teach a fair amount. I do clinics, mainly, and some private lessons when I have time. I really like it and get a lot out of teaching. Usually I play with the students or, if it’s a larger clinic, we do question answer and then I play for the students.

JAZZed: What do you think is the most important element of playing that any guitarist any musician should focus on?
MS: I think that time is the first thing you’ve got to concentrate on and you can always concentrate on that. No matter what you’re doing as soon as you get fluent with a new scale or chord tones or whatever it is you’re practicing, you have to do it in time. You should set up your own groove with or without a metronome, but usually without and really try and set up your own time-feel.

JAZZed: What are the other general principles you try to pass on to younger or less-experienced players?
MS: I just try and talk about how I learned how to play over changes, starting with chord tones and then maybe embellishing chord tones, and chord scales: kind of the nuts and bolts of it all the while, though, emphasizing that that is just the tip of the iceberg. You learn music through listening and playing and there are a couple of ways of listening: there’s listening from the heart, but also listening by transcribing and I’ve done a lot of that.

JAZZed: Do you ask your own students to do transcription work?
MS: Oh yeah. I think that’s such a key skill. Transcribing, yourself, you hear the dynamics, the swing, what the other cats are doing. It’s an immersion kind of thing. It’s not to learn licks, but some of those phrases eventually come out in your playing, which I think is really cool. It’s another way to learn that vocabulary.

If, through transcribing, you listen closely to Sonny Rollins or Bird or Dizzy or Wynton Kelly you’re ultimately going to have that kind of bag, that kind of time-feel, and that vocabulary in your own playing. That’s pretty cool.

I try not to compartmentalize, but I just basically teach what I did and what I still do and people can kind of take it or leave it. That’s how I teach and it helps me by reinforcing what I’ve already done. You also discover new stuff through teaching. The main thing is to play from the heart and to express what’s true for you if you’re doing that, you can’t go too far wrong.

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