"Mike Stern is a beautiful guitarist in the true jazz tradition, combining natural lyricism, fluency in diverse musical languages and a seamless burning technique. He is one of the true guitar greats of his generation." Andy Aledort, Guitar World
One of the top guitarists in jazz over the past two decades, Mike Stern has earned the respect of colleagues and critics alike while also exerting a towering influence on a generation of aspiring players. A guitarist of formidable technique, Stern continues to awe and inspire six-string aficionados with his seamless blend of bebop facility, scorching rock intensity and uncommon lyricism. As Jon Chappell of Guitar magazine put it, "Stern is not only a magician of the fretboard but a heartfelt and mature composer of great depth".
A major player on the scene since his breakthrough days with Miles Davis' celebrated comeback band, circa 1981, Stern's sideman credits include work with such other jazz icons as saxophonist Joe Henderson and bassist Jaco Pastorius, guitarists Jim Hall and Pat Martino, trumpeters Tom Harrell, Arturo Sandoval and Tiger Okoshi and saxophonists Michael Brecker, Bob Berg and David Sanborn as well as Steps Ahead and the Brecker Brothers Band. But it has been in the role of bandleader-composer and Atlantic recording artist that Mike has made his most significant and lasting contribution as an artist.
From his Atlantic debut in 1986, Upside Downside, to his most recent release, 1999's Play, Stern has built an impressive body of work that is underscored by his extraordinary technical skills, his penchant for heartfelt melodies and the undeniable chemistry he achieves with his bandmates. A heroic soloist who has the ability to push the envelope to Hendrixian heights, he also has the capacity to play with Jim Hall-like sensitivity. It is the relative ease with which he shifts from aggressive bop 'n' roll to an elegant 'walking on eggshells' gentility that makes Stern such a remarkably flexible and distinctive player. By combining the legato approach of jazz sax greats John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins with a few touches from the rock camp (i.e., distortion and delay pedals along with some urgent string bending, courtesy of his boyhood blues heroes B.B. King and Buddy Guy) Stern has fashioned a singular voice that comfortably occupies both rock and jazz worlds.
"Most of the guys that I am fortunate enough to work with have those qualities too", says Mike. "They are all very much into the tradition of straight ahead jazz but they also definitely grew up with blues and rock and funk, as I did. And there aren't that many guys who can play this music with conviction in all those areas".
Born on January 10, 1953, Stern began playing guitar at age 12, emulating the likes of B.B. King, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. I liked the feel of the guitar and I got hooked on it", he recalls. "But I didn't really get serious about it until I went to Berklee in 1971".
At the Berklee College of Music in Boston his focus shifted to jazz as he began an intensive period of woodshedding, immersing himself in records by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner and Bill Evans while studying with guitarists Mick Goodrick and Pat Metheny. During his stay at Berklee, Mike developed a keen appreciation for jazz guitar greats Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall, who would both exert a huge influence on his own playing. On a recommendation from Metheny, Stern landed a gig with Blood, Sweat & Tears in 1976 and remained with the band for two years, appearing on the BS&T albums More Than Everand Brand New Day. That gig is also significant for introducing Mike to two musicians who would later figure prominently in his life percussionist Don Alias and bassist Jaco Pastorius.
Following his stint with BS&T, Stern returned to Boston and began studying privately with local jazz guru Charlie Banacos (whom he continues to study with via mail). In 1979, Mike joined Billy Cobham's powerhouse fusion band. Two years later he joined Miles Davis' group, making his public debut with the band on June 27, 1981 at the Kix nightclub in Boston (a performance that was documented on the CBS live album, We Want Miles). Mike remained with Miles through 1983, appearing on Man With The Horn, We Want Milesand Star People (alongside fellow guitarist John Scofield, who guests on Mike's latest as a leader, Play). From 1983 to 1984 he toured in Jaco Pastorius' Word Of Mouth band and in 1985 he returned to Miles for a second tour of duty that lasted close to a year.
In the summer of 1986, Stern went out on the road with David Sanborn and later joined Steps Ahead featuring vibist Mike Mainieri, saxophonist Michael Brecker, bassist Victor Bailey and drummer Steve Smith. His debut on Atlantic Records also came in 1986. Upside Downside featured such celebrated colleagues as Sanborn, Pastorius, saxophonist Bob Berg, bassists Mark Egan and Jeff Andrews, keyboardist Mitch Forman and drummers Dave Weckl and Steve Jordan. From 1986 through 1988, Mike was a member of Michael Brecker's potent quintet, appearing on Don't Try This At Home.
Stern's second Atlantic album, 1988's Time In Place, continued the promise of his debut and featured Peter Erskine on drums, Jim Beard on keyboards, Jeff Andrews on bass, Don Alias on percussion and Don Grolnick on organ. He followed that success with 1989's Jigsaw, which was produced by fellow guitarist Steve Khan and included Mike's menacing Miles Davis tribute, "Chief". In 1989, Stern formed a cooperative touring group with Bob Berg that also included drummer Dennis Chambers and bassist Lincoln Goines. They remained a working unit through 1992 and are featured on Mike's Atlantic release, Odds Or Evens.
Stern joined a reunited Brecker Brothers Band in 1992 and became a key factor in the success of that popular group for the next two years. His acclaimed and decidedly jazzy 1993 Atlantic release, Standards (And Other Songs), led to Mike being named Best Jazz Guitarist Of The Year by the readers and critics of Guitar Player magazine. He followed that up with two hard-hitting offerings in 1994's Is What It Is and 1996's Between The Lines, both of which received Grammy nominations.
In 1997, Stern returned to a jazzier aesthetic with Give And Take, a looser, more spontaneous session featuring bassist John Patitucci, drummer Jack DeJohnette, percussionist Don Alias and special guests Michael Brecker and David Sanbom. On the strength of that superbly swinging effort, which included freewheeling covers of Sonny Rollins' "Oleo", John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" and Cole Porter's "I Love You" along with a scintillating trio rendition of Jimi Hendrix's "Who Knows", Mike won the Orville W. Gibson Award for Best Jazz Guitarist.
With Play, his ninth release on Atlantic, Stern summons up more fretboard magic in a six-string summit meeting with fellow guitarists John Scofield and Bill Frisell. Drummers Ben Perowsky and Dennis Chambers, bassist Lincoln Goines and saxophonist Bob Malach round out the cast on this gathering of three of the most influential and respected guitarists of their generation.
"They're two of my favorite musicians who just happen to be guitarists", he says of Frisell and Scofield. "It's been interesting to watch them try different things over the years and still keep their own unique musical voices. And that has certainly inspired me to keep on doing that myself. So it was great to finally get a chance to do a project like this. We're all really close and have a long history together so that was naturally a big part of it ... the fun vibe in the studio. And I think the music came out sounding like that kind of playful".
Play represents the next step in the ongoing journey of Mike Stern, a true guitar innovator who continues to astound with chops, musicality and heart.