12/23/2010 04:35 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Jazz Guitar Legend Mike Stern's Big Neighborhood


I had a chance to speak with jazz guitar legend Mike Stern in Los Angeles while he was in town to play a few nights at the amazing Catalina Jazz Club. His band mates for the show were Dennis Chambers, Randy Brecker, and Tom Kennedy.

Stern, who played guitar on We Want Miles with Miles Davis, is playing at the Iridium Jazz Club for a few nights in Manhattan with a tribute band called Four Generations of Miles. This interview took place before the show on December 10 at Catalina in LA. Here are some excerpts:

Michael Martin: Now it seems, Mike, you've been on tour almost every day since September 1.

Mike Stern: Yeah, I've been hitting it a lot. And, actually for the last bunch of years; I mean as I say I'm really, really lucky to be working as much as I'm working. But I love to play. I mean, the travel is definitely a challenge. And, going on the road is quite a challenge. But, it's worth it when you get to play with, especially with the musicians I get a chance to play with. So, it really keeps me growing musically and just, it's really kind an honor and a privilege to be able to get invited to play in different places. You know what I mean, to be able to hook up gigs in different places.


Michael Martin: ...and because, I mean, you think the US government is going to spend any money to keep the arts going when we have all these beautiful bombs to buy?

Mike Stern: Exactly. That's totally true. It's very much the reason why; because there's such a huge defense budget here. The reason why a lot of other things, including just education in general, certainly music education, certainly any kind of stuff for the arts; basically gets way down on the list. You know, if they took Europe there's more opportunity for the arts in general. Basically, because they don't spend it all on smart bombs, or dumb bombs, or whatever.

Michael Martin: I just finished the second round of edits for my first book, and I can tell you, I've been listening to Kind of Blue, A Love Supreme, and your albums Upside Downside, the new one Big Neighborhood, OH, and also Who Let the Cats Out. Who did let the cats out anyway Mike? [both laugh]

Mike Stern: "Who Let the Cats Out"? Leni [Stern's wife, Leni Stern].

Michael Martin: Of course she did.

Mike Stern: We have five cats, that's where the title came from. She loves cats. She wants more, too. So they're always getting out of the apartment and I'm always saying, "Who let the cats out?" And it's usually her. And I finally said, "That's a good name for a title, " for a record title. What the f***, it applies. Those are actually my cats on the cover.

Michael Martin: I was just listening to the tune Moroccan Roll before we started chatting. Are you going to be playing tunes from Big Neighborhood tonight at Catalina Jazz Club?

Mike Stern: Yeah. That tune was fun for me, because it's got a lot of great players on there. Steve Vai, of course, is really coming from a different place, but he's a fantastic musician.

Michael Martin: ...Mike, he played for Zappa. I mean...

Mike Stern: Yeah, yeah, yeah. He's a bad dude, man. And a really, really smoking guitar player and really wonderful musician. And Eric Johnson too. Eric's more of a bluesier, blues guy, but man, is he burning. Beautiful, beautiful musician. So that was really fun. But also, Esperanza Spalding. She's so great, and she sang her ass off, and plays unbelievably great bass. We're actually going to do some gigs, it looks like in April at the Iridium.

Michael Martin: I'll be there then. I wanted to ask you, sort of a personal question. I remember reading that you had your old Telecaster with the Broadcaster neck stolen, the Roy Buchanan deal. And I've been meaning to ask you about that. Is your current guitar a tribute to that?

Mike Stern: Yeah. It was designed after that guitar.

Michael Martin: How did that affect you? I mean, I've had my place broken into in New York and I felt horrible. I went to Columbia in Manhattan, and of course, spent Monday and Wednesday nights in Sheridan Square [at the 55 Bar on Christopher St. where Stern holds court when he's in town]. Not only to get robbed, but to have your main axe that had some notoriety behind it? How did it affect you?

Mike Stern: Well, that sucked. I mean, it was my main axe. That's the main thing. You get used to it. And I've been playing it for a while, so really, man. It pissed me off. Fortunately, somebody had seen me play with that a lot, and they built something that was, in some ways, similar. It was a mock-Telecaster. Not really a pure Tele. It's been messed with, different kind of pick ups. So the same thing on this guy made something for me in Boston that was similar to that, and that was a spare.

And then Yamaha got that one and made this, this guitar, the one that I have now. Which is a Yamaha, it's the Mike Stern Stern model. And they said they were interested in building a signature guitar for me, so I said, "Yeah, solid." [laughs]

And they really work hard at it. So they sent me a bunch of prototypes and they gave me one that's really good. And generally, the guitar they have in the stores that are my model, everybody seems to really like them. They're slightly different than mine, because this one's a little heavier than most people would play. But they're really warm sounding Tele, kind of style guitar.

Michael Martin: There are so many great musicians who have come to the 55 over the years to both play with you and to hear you play. I saw you with Jaco, I saw you with Michael Brecker, and I saw you with Bob Berg, who I stood so close to, I could smell his breath through the damn sax.

Now, they were all band mates of yours, contemporaries, and great friends. They could also burn like mothers. How did their untimely deaths affect you? Not just as a person, but as an artist. That must have been very hard on you?

Mike Stern: It was. All three of those guys, and of course, Miles, who should probably would still be alive because he was so strong, but he didn't exactly take care of himself through his whole life. I think it cut his life short.

And I think in a lot of, in all those cases, except for Bob, well, it was a car accident, with Bob Berg. But with Michael it was early stuff that kind of caught up with him. And he kind of was unlucky with the treatment for stuff that he had, you know, with liver stuff.

And then Jaco, of course, that wasn't a surprise, totally, that he was headed for an early demise, you know, an early death. But at the same time it was a shock and a totally sad thing for me with all three of those guys. Amazing shock and incredibly sad. And I still miss them and wish they were here because I say "Man, let's play, and let's. Yeah, I'm working on this tune." You know, I miss them like crazy because were so hooked up in so many ways. You know, I keep thinking. I often think if Jaco was still alive it would be so amazing to play with him and to do gigs with him. I mean, it was so much fun. And I wasn't really sober at the time and now I've been sober for like 25 years.

We played some since I got sober. And it clicked like a mother. Even more than before. But, you know, he didn't go down that route. He kind of stayed getting messed up. So it really got... I think that's why he died. I mean, at the end of the day, no matter how the real circumstances happened, he kind of led himself into that.

Michael Martin: Let's turn it back to the music of Big Neighborhood. One of the new tunes, Moraccan Roll was inspired from the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who I was lucky enough to see...

Mike Stern: Wow! You saw him?

Michael Martin: I saw him at Symphony's Space in '92 or '93, playing a bunch of...

Mike Stern: Oh, that's cool. What a m***** f*****, man. Wow!.

Michael Martin: ...Sufi devotional music. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and a whole bunch of qawwali singers on stage. They were playing and singing like 32 measure phrases and alternating between 10 and 7 beats per measure. It was amazing and totally beautiful. I spent the whole night trying to count it. I was completely lost, but it grew my ears out.

Mike Stern: Oh yes, It's amazing stuff, amazing music. And he was just a soulful cat, man. That guy, incredibly soulful voice. Richard Bona said at one time, he was on one of those records where he was doing stuff with Alanis Morrisette and you know, James Taylor. Some record company had hooked Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan up with all those guys, and maybe Peter Gabriel, something like that. And Richard Bona was like background singing for something. He said all those singers were great and they had their own personality.

But when that cat [Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan] came on and started singing, it was just all over in about two seconds. You know, it was just so amazing. So, incredible, incredible cat.

But yes, I was truly inspired by that. But there's a really interesting story that Steve Vai almost played with him. And I never knew that. I had just gotten Steve for the record, I said Steve would sound cool on this tune, I thought, you know.

Steve and I were rehearsing and I didn't really have the right vibe, initially, it was more like a funk vibe. And I said, "No, its kind of more this kind of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan kind of vibe. You know who that is?" And Steve said "I almost played with the guy. Yes, I know what you mean." So we all of a sudden kind of got the right vibe for that tune.

Michael Martin: Now, in terms of your recording style, it sounds so "live." I love when I listen to AC/DC's Back in Black. I can picture Malcolm and Angus [Young] walking into the studio, putting on the lights, plugging their s*** in, counting it off, and then rocking from the first note. That's how your records come across.

Mike Stern: I like to do it live. I've never done anything with files or that kind of stuff. I don't like to. I probably will always avoid that as much as I can on my own records. I understand people sometimes do it because they can't... You can't fly somebody here and there and... But I just try and make that happen whenever possible. It's just so much better live. For me, for this kind of music, the interplay is so important, even if it's pretty arranged.

The stuff that happens in the studio, where you might change an arrangement just on the spur of the moment. Or somebody plays something here and then you do something there. There's all the settled s*** that happens that you just can't get unless you're all in the same proximity, in the same room.

At the same time. And then if you want to add something afterward, overdub a little, something. It's just around this core that's really 99% done. It's live, and the spirit is there, and you just live with it. Then if you want to change a little bit of a, fix a solo up, or add a little rhythm overdub or something, that's all cool. But the bulk of it is, the spirit is there. So you really get that live... And there's no other way to get that, I don't think. So I really prefer that.