One of the great jazz guitarists of his generation, Mike Stern has the unique ability to play with the finesse and lyricism of Jim Hall, the driving swing of Wes Montgomery and the turbulent, overdriven attack of Jimi Hendrix. Growing up in the Washington, D.C. area, Stern revered all three of those guitar immortals, along with such potent blues guitarists as Albert and B.B. King. Aspects of those seminal influences can be heard in his playing on the 18 recordings he has released as a leader or in his acclaimed sideman work for Miles Davis, Billy Cobham, the Brecker Brothers, Jaco Pastorius, Steps Ahead, David Sanborn, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Joe Henderson and the all-star Four Generations of Miles band.
Stern’s latest Concord Jazz release, Eleven, is an encounter with Grammy-winning keyboardist-composer-producer Jeff Lorber. Co-produced by bassist Jimmy Haslip, who had previously worked with the guitarist on the Yellowjacket’s 2008 album, Lifecycle, this lively collaboration finds Stern at the peak of his powers, following on the heels of 2017’s acclaimed Trip, his triumphant return to recording after a freak accident that threatened to end his career. The multiple Grammy-nominated guitarist was hailing a cab outside his apartment in Manhattan July 3, 2016 when he tripped over some hidden construction debris left in the street, fracturing both of his humerus bones (the long bones that run from the shoulder to the elbow) in the fall. Left with significant nerve damage in his right hand which prevented him from doing the simplest tasks, including holding a pick, Stern faced a series of surgeries and subsequent physical therapy before he could regain control of his nerve-damaged picking hand. And while Trip represented a strong comeback, the intrepid guitarist takes things up a notch on Eleven.
“When the idea was floated for this project, I asked a bunch of cats who worked with Jeff, like Randy Brecker, Dave Weckl and Bob Franceschini, and they all said, ‘He’s cool, he throws down, he can really get it going.’ And they’re right,” said Stern. “Jeff’s got a strong rhythmic groove and he comps really well on the Fender Rhodes, which is kind of his signature sound. And I feel like his music really comes more from soul music than smooth jazz. That Philly soul thing is definitely in some of his tunes on this record.”
Added Lobber of their first collaboration together, “Mike’s just a bebop wizard, he’s got an incredible jazz feeling. And by the same token, he’s got the rock and blues thing covered too. He’s on both sides of the musical spectrum. So when I heard he was up for it, I was delighted to have a chance to work with him in the studio on this project. And I think we really hit it off musically as well as personally.”
One of the top guitarists in jazz since his breakthrough days with Miles Davis’ celebrated comeback band of the early 1980s, 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, he 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 noted, “Stern is not only a magician of the fretboard but a heartfelt and mature composer of great depth.” By combining the legato approach of jazz saxophone greats like John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson 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 successfully fashioned a singular voice that comfortably occupies both rock and jazz worlds.
Born on January 10, 1953, he 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 recalled in an interview. “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 stint at Berklee, he developed a keen appreciation for jazz guitar greats Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall, both of whom would 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 Ever and Brand New Day. That gig is also significant for introducing the guitarist 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. In 1979, he joined Billy Cobham’s powerhouse fusion band and 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). Stern remained with Miles through 1983, also appearing on Man With The Horn and Star People). From 1983 to 1984, he toured in Jaco Pastorius’ Word Of Mouth band and in 1985 returned to Miles for a second tour of duty that lasted close to a year.
In 1985, Stern made his recording debut as a leader with Neesh on the Japanese Trio label. A year later, he made his Stateside debut as a leader on Atlantic Records with Upside Downside, which featured such celebrated colleagues as alto saxophonist David Sanborn, tenor saxophonist Bob Berg, bassists Mark Egan, Jeff Andrews and Jaco Pastorius, keyboardist Mitch Forman and drummers Dave Weckl and Steve Jordan. In the summer of 1986, Stern took to the road with David Sanborn and later joined an electrified edition of Steps Ahead, which featured Mike Mainieri on midi vibes, Michael Brecker on the Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI), Darryl Jones on electric bass and Steve Smith on drums. That powerhouse fusion outfit was documented on Live in Tokyo 1986. Over the next two years, Stern was a member of Michael Brecker’s potent quintet, appearing on the tenor titan’s 1988 album, 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. Following the release of 1991’s 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 decidedly jazzy 1993 Atlantic release, Standards (And Other Songs), led to Stern being named Best Jazz Guitarist Of The Year by the readers and critics of Guitar Playermagazine. He followed that success 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,” he was awarded the Orville W. Gibson Award for Best Jazz Guitarist.
Stern’s ninth release on Atlantic, 1999’s Play, was a six-string summit meeting with fellow guitarists John Scofield and Bill Frisell. He followed with 2001’s Voices, his first album to employ singers (Arto Tuncboyaciyan, Elizabeth Kantomanou, Richard Bona) and 2004’s These Times, which featured guest turns from banjo ace Bela Fleck and alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett. 2006’s Who Let The Cats Out? featured a bevy of bassists in Meshell Ndegeocello, Anthony Jackson, Richard Bona and Victor Wooten along with drummers Kim Thompson and Dave Weckl and harmonica ace Gregoire Maret and the late, great trumpeter Roy Hargrove.
At the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal in June 2007, Stern was honored with the Miles Davis Award, which was created to recognize internationally acclaimed jazz artists whose body of work has contributed significantly to the renewal of the genre. Stern was also the artist in residence at the festival that summer of 2007, joining the renowned Yellowjackets for some electrifying live performances. Their kinetic chemistry was later documented on the 2008 studio collaboration Lifecycle, which was nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album.
The following year saw the release of his Grammy-nominated Big Neighborhood, which found Stern with guitar heroes Eric Johnson and Steve Vai, trumpeter Randy Brecker and jamband godfathers Medeski, Martin & Wood on a few tracks.
Stern was presented with Guitar Player magazine’s Certified Legend Award on January 21, 2012. In June of that year, he released All Over the Place, which featured a delegation of high-caliber electric and acoustic bass players, including Esperanza Spalding, Richard Bona, Victor Wooten, Anthony Jackson, Dave Holland, Tom Kennedy, Will Lee and Victor Bailey. On 2014’s Eclectic, Stern went toe-to-toe with Texas guitar slinger Eric Johnson, cutting a wide stylistic swath on eleven originals while showcasing their mutual love of Jimi Hendrix on a cover of his slow blues classic, “Red House.” Recorded in three days at Johnson’s studio in Austin, Electric was hailed as “a dazzling outing from two formidable, well-matched guitar heroes” by Jazz Times magazine.
The guitar great continued to play with peerless authority while flaunting prodigious chops on 2017’s Trip and now exhibits that same impressive six-string prowess on Eleven.