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Jazz Guitar Today’s Very Candid Conversation with Mike Stern

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In this video conversation, JGT’s Bob Bakert talks to Mike Stern about teaching, favorite gigs, James Brown, and his love of guitar.

Bob Bakert, Editor of Jazz Guitar Today: There are very few musicians on any instrument in any genre that have had the the universal admiration and artistic success for their creative accomplishments as Mike Stern… He is truly universally admired and revered. He’s played with Miles Davis, Billy Cobham, Michael and Randy Brecker, Dennis Chambers, David Sanborn, Jaco Pastorius and SO many others that I have to refer you to WikiPedia for a more complete list.

I have been listening to Mike Stern for decades. His solos bring an amazing blend of passion, fire, creative abandonment, as well as harmonic and melodic mastery. His music satisfies the ears of the most astute, educated musicians as well as people who just feel the groove and “dig it”. It is with such pride we offer this intimate, and gracious interview with a true Master, Mike Stern…

Below are excerpts from the video conversation. For the full conversation, view the video above.


Bob: Regarding your teaching, do you take students at all levels?

Mike: Pretty much when it comes, but pretty much the students are pretty advanced. And it’s been easy to, to teach a few that are kind of kind of having some trouble getting past a certain point, but I like a challenge to teach different levels. And if anybody loves to play, I’m behind them a hundred percent, no matter what, because it’s been, for me, it’s been like a lifesaver, to be able to play the guitar. Even after this injury, which really upset me, I’m fighting to keep going. And I ain’t gonna stop either. So I found a way to turn this thing around.

Mike Stern Live #1
Mike Stern, Atlanta 11/25/14 Photo Credit: Drew Stawin

Bob: We talked about your injury, last time, but could you let people know what you’re talking about?

Mike: Well, I fell on some construction. It wasn’t supposed to be there in New York and very disguised. I was walking across the street pretty fast, with my wife and she managed to miss this thing and I tripped on it. And as I was kind of falling, cause I tripped, I was moving faster to try to catch my body so I hit pretty hard and broke both my bones up here, not the shoulder, but the bones underneath the humorous bones. And that was of course a drag, well worst is that I got this nerve damage in my right hand. So I wasn’t able to really play. I had a couple of surgeries just to get my hands so I could do a pinch, so I can hold little pick.And a couple more surgeries just to reinforce that. Although my grip was pretty strong, but I still couldn’t quite hold the pick. So I have to use glue.

Mike Stern Close up
Mike Stern close up, Atlanta 11/25/14 Photo Credit: Drew Stawin

Music as a language

Mike: West Montgomery who couldn’t even read music, but played his ass off, he read a little from my her, but not much. And he could just hear it. And you know, Dennis Chambers is somebody amazing drummer. He doesn’t read a lick. I mean, he plays some seriously, especially with John McLaughlin. I mean, all that stuff was weird times, great stuff, And Dennis used to play it just by learning all by memory and just by listening. So, ultimately that’s the way you learn music. It’s like learning a language. You can learn a certain amount of in school and that will help things along. But at the end of the day, it’s by trial and error, playing a lot and by listening to people that are really fluent in the language.

Mike: If you go back to the analogy of a language, you may learn French a little bit in a French school in the States. But when you go to France, you really learn it. All of a sudden it’s in your face and there are different ways of approaching it. So with any language, that’s when you really learn it – just listening, and then trying it, fumbling and making tons of mistakes and embarrassing yourself. And music is a language…

Mike Stern Live #2
Mike Stern, Atlanta 11/25/14 Photo Credit: Drew Stawin

Bob: What’s the your favorite gig – in other words, what is just like, yeah, man, I’m dropping everything to play that gig?

Mike: It’s hard to say because they all have their positives. But one thing that I and hope stays open is the 55 Bar, cause that’s just fun to play. There’s no pressure. It’s just fun. It’s a small club in New York and I play there. I’ve been playing there for years, Mondays and Wednesdays. I was on the road a lot, but every time I’d be home, I’d be playing there. It’s a ball, and a lot of times it was with really great players. And so I’ve been really, really happy about that. When you’re on the road, a festival can be great, but but my real favorite is probably more like clubs and gigs where you can feel the audience and the audience can really get the feeling for the intricacy of what you’re playing.

Mike Stern Live #3
Mike Stern, Atlanta 11/25/14 Photo Credit: Drew Stawin

Bob: People should know that there’s a lot of a YouTube of you at the 55 bar.

Mike: Yea, there’s a lot of stuff there. Yeah. Some of it sucks and some of it has a good vibe. So you never know…but that’s the nature of YouTube. I know sometimes people are filming everything, but I’m not going to not try something. I’m going to try some shit. I don’t care. You got to go for it and experiment on every gig – not totally, but do something. I had a great teacher one time, he said, just try ONE thing every gig. Just because you’re playing to an audience – you don’t want to think about new stuff consciously. You want to concentrate on who you’re playing with, on the dynamics, on the basic idea, building on a solo or whatever, but you can also try ONE thing on every gig.

Mike: I had this great teacher, who used to say James Brown was an amazing improviser. And I thought, well, he does the same thing. He said, no. He said, every night he did the same thing and made it sound like the first time he ever did it. He had that energy. That’s the goal. No matter what you got on a certain night, you’re trying new stuff. And it seems like it’s working. If you’re not trying anything and you’re playing some stuff, try to make it fresh. There’s all kinds of ways you can play in the time, in different ways, you can play the dynamics differently. There’s all kinds of stuff you can do. But the energy has got to be there too. It can’t be like, “Oh boy, here’s a predictable”. Even if it’s a similar lick, there’s a way to make it sound fresh or to put the energy behind it. Like you dig it.

Mike Stern Live #4
Eric Johnson and Mike Stern, Atlanta 11/25/14 Photo Credit: Drew Stawin

Bob: Anything to say to the Jazz Guitar Today audience?

Mike: Regardless of what level you’re on – if you play guitar, I always try to say this. Somebody told me this long time ago… once you kind of get past a certain point and you know you love to play, it’s amazingly worth it to going and to develop – trying to always develop your potential as much as you can. It’s just amazingly worth it to hang on to. And no one can take it away from you except for you. And one way to keep it, you have to water the flowers every day you have to do a little bit of practicing every day. Otherwise the flowers are going to wilt. So that’s basically what I’ve realized – it’s SO worth it, I mean to play guitar, there’s nothing like it.


Mike Stern’s Trip

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