The Importance of Being Earnestly Open-Minded
Jazz-fusion guitarist Mike Stern talks about playing with Miles Davis, how smokin’ Jimi Hendrix is, and getting Steve Vai and Eric Johnson on his last record
American jazz-fusion guitarist Mike Stern has a very impressive resume. He played with the biggest names in music ”“ Blood, Sweat & Tears, Miles Davis, Joe Henderson, Jaco Pastorius, Billy Cobham and Michael Brecker included ”“ before becoming bandleader himself. The five-time Grammy nominee was in Mumbai last month for two concerts – he was accompanied by Louiz Banks on keyboards, Gino Banks on drums, Sheldon D’Silva on bass and Satyajit Talwalkar on tablas – organised jointly by the Blue Frog and the National Centre for Performing Arts. Stern took time out from his fly-in-fly-out schedule, one that had him jetlagged, to speak to us.
Fantastic gig last night, Mike. How was it for you?
Oh, it was great. Usually I don’t play like this. Usually I don’t play with a band unless I bring the band. I have different musicians; we play together in New York and all that. But in this case, I knew Louiz [Banks] a little bit and I know that he’s a smokin’ keyboard player. Excellent.
You’ve played with him before?
I had heard him play. We’re actually on this record, Miles from India. We played but we weren’t together. But I heard him play on it. And I have heard him play with my wife Leni. She was doing a gig and I was here just hanging out with her when she was doing a gig at the Oberoi. This is years ago. So I heard him play there. And he sounded terrific. Then Leni told me that Gino [Banks] is great. I’d never heard him and she said that he’d be great and so that worked out. And Sheldon was killing. So they got the music all together. It was real fun so we are gonna do it again in January. A longer tour.
Was this is your first time playing in India?
No, it’s the second time. I played here with a trio, in 2000 at the Jazz Yatra. That was a long time ago.
And was this your first time with a tabla player? You seemed very excited about it on stage.
Yeah. I was very excited about the tabla. Tabla-aaaaa! It was really fun. He’s smoking. His time feel was so easy to play along with so that was really fun. And it gives it a different vibe.
On your last record, Big Neighborhood, you have some Asian sounds.
Yeah, like on ”˜Moroccan Roll.’ Yeah, because there’s such a strong kind of a sound from India, of Indian music. I mean, it’s tight, very evolved”¦ incredibly evolved. I’ve been into it for years at some level because in the States in the Sixties, Indian music started becoming very popular and has been very popular ever since. But when you really get into it and learn some of the ragas like Louiz was showing me”¦ and he’s gonna write some more out for me. And my wife has studied some Indian singing. So she was writing out some of that stuff. And also the takadhimi”¦ Shit, it’s so evolved, it’s incredible music.
Do you end up putting any of that into your music?
I do. I try to”¦ just on a very instinctive level. Not so much on a really analytical level. Like I wouldn’t even begin to think that I have really scratched the surface with how deep Indian music is. But I’ve learnt a little bit and take what I learnt and try to put it right away into the music because it inspires me. So there was one tune I wrote on this record that I did a bunch of years ago, around 2000, called Voices”¦ And that was when I was here with Leni”¦ And I wrote this tune called ”˜Way Out East,’ and it has that kind of flavour. And it was from just kinda hanging out in India. ”˜Moroccan Roll’ has that kind of vibe to it”¦
You have Steve Vai playing on ”˜Moroccan Roll’”¦
Yeah, yeah”¦ Steve Vai, it was really interesting. Because when I rehearsed the track with him and [drummer] Dave Weckl, I didn’t know [exactly] what I wanted. So I mentioned to him that it’s more like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Pakistani singer. I said, “Have you ever heard of him?” He said, “I almost played with him.” I didn’t know this. Did you know this?
No, I didn’t”¦
Steve Vai almost played with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, right before he died”¦
That would have been awesome”¦
That would have been perfect”¦ but they never played together.
Because Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan had already gone West and played with Eddie Vedder, he’d played with Peter Gabriel”¦
Right right right”¦ absolutely. And he did that record [1999’s The Prayer Cycle]. James Taylor’s on it and all these other people. He’s smokin’”¦ he was great. And Louiz told me yesterday”¦ he said in Pakistan, they have the best singers and the best artists, painters. Is that true? I mean, you know, for me, there’s some amazing singers in India. I mean, you can’t get any better once you get to a certain level. But it’s incredible”¦ I’m into all of it.
Tell me something Mike, typically in a setting like last night’s, how much would you end up improvising?
Oh, most of that’s improvised. The songs and the harmony and the structures are there but when I’m playing lines over that, that’s all improvised. Different lines, different scales”¦ You know, I get a lot from horn players, saxophone players or piano players. I try to do that”¦ more than guitar nowadays. At first I used to transcribe guitar players and try to play some of what they do or just do it by ear. And then now I try and transcribe piano players or saxophone players and try and play it on the guitar a little bit. Not to learn the licks, but just to get the phrasing. So it sounds more horn-like on the guitar. It’s like a singing sound.
When you say horns, it brings me to Miles Davis. I read somewhere that you mentioned that your first jazz record ever, that you really seriously listened to was a Miles record. And then years later you actually ended up playing with him. That must have been incredible”¦
Yeah, that was. I mean, he was an early influence for everybody. For every jazz musician. But very early for me, because my mom used to play some stuff around the house like that. And one of the things was Miles and I dug it right away. It just got me. I didn’t really understand it but it just hit me. And so that kinda got me into jazz. That and a couple of other records that I heard. And then I ended up playing with him. Yeah that was amazing. I mean, because he was such a hero for everybody.
This friend of mine, Bill Evans, a saxophone player, was playing with Miles. He said, “We’re recording and Miles isn’t too fond of the guitar player,” who I knew was a great payer. But they weren’t getting along personally, nothing to do with the music. So he said, he may be looking for somebody else. Then after a couple of false starts ”“ like Bill called me a couple of times and it didn’t happen ”“ I was in New York with Billy Cobham about nine months later, because I’d been playing with him off and on. And we were playing at a club called The Bottom Line which is closed now unfortunately. Bill called me up at the break and said, “I’m bringing Miles to see you, so play your ass off.” And I did the best I could. And Miles really liked it which I was very happy about. And then he asked Bill to tell me to be at 6 o’clock at a studio, and he wanted me to play over this whole other tune that had been done already on Man With a Horn, this record that he came back with. I didn’t feel comfortable playing over it. And he said, [imitating Davis’ hoarse whisper] “Okay okay.” And then he did another session for one last tune on the record and that was this tune ”˜Fat Time.’ It left a lot of room for the guitar and I played. And it didn’t happen at first. Then Bill took me aside and said “Just play your fuckin’ ass off. Don’t get too particular, just play it. Miles will like your energy.” So then I just played and it worked out. Bill had to really support me. Bill’s an amazing musician. This is not Bill Evans the piano player, who is also super incredible. I’m talking about Bill Evans the saxophone player. That should be made clear. Because Bill Evans the piano player, I never played with. I wish I had. This is Bill Evans the saxophone player who played with Miles in the early Eighties. So I played on this last tune on the record Man With the Horn. And it was called ”˜Fat Time,’ which is what Miles used to call me. He used to call me ”˜Fat Time’ because I was heavier and he liked my time feel. He said I had “fat time.” So he called me [hoarse whisper] Fat Time. That was my nickname [laughs]. And he named the tune ”˜Fat Time’ because he liked the guitars on it so much. So it’s on Man With a Horn.
You know some of Miles’ records were”¦ They’re all really interesting in a lot of ways. But some of them were, some cuts were good, some weren’t as good, I thought. And I liked the way that cut came out. It just had a great vibe to it. The rhythm section was Marcus Miller and Al Foster. So some of those other cuts on that record had a vibe. But there are records that he did that are not as strong as other records that he did, but they are really interesting because they are in the middle of transitioning in between one thing and the other”¦
Yeah, he explored like crazy. It’s amazing. That was his way.
It’s pretty interesting because I was listening to your record this morning, Big Neighborhood. And you seem to have a whole lot of different sounds on it.
I like to do that too”¦ I like it.
There’s hard rock as well”¦
Yeah, and there’s bebop”¦ I like a lot of that. Guitar tends to blur the boundaries I think. Because the guitar’s everywhere. It’s used in a lot of different kinds of music. There’s jazz guitar of course, there’s rock guitar everywhere. There’s country. It’s in lots of kinds of music that you can relate to right away as a guitarist. You might have your favourite kind of music but you can relate to a lot of others because your instrument is somewhere in there. So I think it kinda tends, atleast for me anyway, and some other friends of mine, I can say this about other jazz guitar players. Their priority is jazz but they tend to be more open-minded to other stuff.
I mean you can’t deny Hendrix either. I don’t care how traditional you are as a jazz guitar player, you have to say that Hendrix had the shit! And if you don’t like it, then at least you have a strong opposition to it. I mean, most people come around and say he was smokin’”¦ Even if they are traditional jazz players, especially guitar players.
There are people like Wynton Marsalis who is an incredible trumpet player, but he doesn’t like anything rock or anything modern. He doesn’t like it, he has no ear for it at all. As a matter of fact, I think he actually likes it but he says it in the press that he doesn’t like it just because he wants to make this case for straight-ahead jazz. But I don’t agree with that. I think if it feels good, it doesn’t matter what it is. It could be a little children’s song or something like that, if it gets to your heart, it’s good. And if it’s really complicated and it gets to your heart, it’s really good. You know what, it doesn’t really matter. And that’s what Miles taught me. And Jaco Pastorius, who I also played with, was very much like that too, very open-minded”¦
You’ve played with a lot of big names”¦
Yeah, I was lucky, man”¦ just to play with those cats. And they all kicked my ass, which was good [laughs].
Coming back to Big Neighborhood”¦ Names like Steve Vai and Eric Johnson are not necessarily names you’d traditionally find on jazz records”¦
No”¦ and that’s what I like. I’ve liked Steve Vai for a long time. And I knew he was a smokin’ musician. And Eric too. So I had these tunes that were kinda written for people like that. Not written for them, but I thought they would be cool when I was thinking of getting a bunch of different people on the record.
I did this a little bit on my last record where I started getting a little bit more adventurous. I got Meshell Ndegeocello on the last record”¦ the record is called Who Let the Cats Out. And I got Roy Hargrove. So it was different.
But this was even more adventurous. I’ve been thinking about using Steve Vai for a long time. So this time I call him up and he was into it. I wasn’t really sure if he would want to do it but he was like, “Yeah man, definitely!” So we went out and did one rehearsal together. Because I wanted to play everyone live in the studio. Those guys couldn’t come to New York, neither one of them at that time. So I had to schedule to take the rhythm section out to both Austin, Texas where Eric Johnson is, and then to LA where Steve is. And in Austin, I wanted to use Lionel Cordew, a fantastic drummer. So I took him from New York, because we play a lot together. Lionel and Lincoln Goines, another great bass player. I took them and piano player, Jim Beard. We went out to Austin and played two cuts with Eric. Then we went to LA, but Dave Weckl, who plays with me a lot, was already in LA. So Dave did this cut with Steve and Lincoln and Jim Beard. We had short rehearsals and then we just went for it. And it worked out really good.
I thought it was cool and it was really fun to play with them. All that stuff takes me to a different world in a way. I still have the way I play, and that’s just the way. After a bunch of years, you find your own voice, I guess. And you keep that no matter what the context. But playing with great payers who are in different worlds, it inspires your writing, it inspires your playing.