“I like a lot of interaction, even on a ballad,” says Stern, who has played with the best of the best, including Miles Davis, Jaco Pastorius, Chick Corea, and Eric Johnson. Photo by Jordi Vidal
At a recent 55 Bar gig, you told me you’ve played some things that you were surprised you could do, and you even wondered if you could’ve done them before the injury. What types of things were you referring to?
Sometimes it’s hard to tell. That’s one of the tricky things. If you’re self-critical, like we all are, you listen to yourself on tape and go, “Aw man.” You’re your own worst critic. You’re usually harder on yourself than anybody else and it’s hard to objectively sit back and criticize. And some nights you think something’s great and you listen back and it sucks. You never know when you’re doing it. One of the hardest things for me to do is to figure out what I used to be able to do, and what I can do now, and what the difference is. That’s part of the mind mess you can get into. Your brain says, “I used to be able to do that and now I can’t do it anymore.” And then you start thinking, “Did I used to be able to do that?” Because that was a hard thing to do in the first place.
How do you now play things that must be fingerpicked, like the open-voiced triads you often do on ballads?
That’s kind of a battle. But open triads aren’t a problem [demonstrates by playing open-voiced triads pick-style and using the fretting hand fingers to mute the inner, open strings]. What the doctor is going to do, I think, is straighten these out a little [raises middle and ring fingers of picking hand]. See how my index finger is bent a little bit? He did that on purpose for the initial time, so I could do a pinch and hold the pick. At first, he had me try Velcro but it didn’t work.
It looks like now you’re using more arm motion for your picking, rather than wrist.
I’ve always done that a little bit. I still do the wrist movement, and that’s happening more because I can hold the pick better.
Can you still do that signature tremolo-picked, chord thing with the arm motion?
[Plays tremolo-picked chords along with some fast runs.] It’s close enough for me. I’m of the mind that even if it’s a little funky, as long as you get your heart and soul out there, that’s what music’s all about. There are times when I’m doing someone else’s record date, and a mix isn’t great, and you don’t have control over it. But I go for the soul. If it’s within a ballpark, I’m cool with it. I remember when I did “Fat Time” [Stern’s first recorded track with Miles Davis, who named the tune after Stern because he was heavy at the time and Davis liked his timing feel], there was clackiness and it was raw. I wanted to fix it here and there, and Miles Davis said to me, “Fat Time, when you’re at a party you gotta know when to leave.”
I think John McLaughlin is fighting arthritis, but he’s still playing his fucking ass off. Jeff Clayton [saxophonist and flautist] from the Clayton Brothers has Bell’s palsy and can’t close his mouth completely. He has to wear a special kind of strap to keep the air from coming out. I saw him on a jazz cruise I did, and he came into this rehearsal place I was at and started explaining what he’s going through and he said one of the things that tends to happen is that you try to play it safe, but he said, “You can’t do that. You gotta go for all of your ideas.” And he plays his ass off.
Steve Morse has arthritis as well, and mentioned in an interview we did that, as a result, he’s had to adjust his picking technique.
It happens but the cats that fuckin’ deal, keep playing. There’s so much you can do with music, including classical players. Julian Bream would drink a fifth of Jim Beam before he played a gig. One of the greatest guitarists and he was bombed.
It seems like you spend a lot of time writing, in addition to just playing.
I’m always writing. I probably have another record’s worth of tunes. I was just up at Berklee doing a clinic and someone asked, “How do you get your own sound?” Basically, everybody has their own sound. You find it and you run with it. Like your voice. We all have similar things that we do with our voice when we talk, but we all have our own unique way of doing it, even if it’s not dramatically different. But the thing that will get your personality out in music is writing, more than playing almost. So, I’m always writing.
What are some challenges you face in the writing process?
The hard part for me sometimes, when I write, is that I get shy about it. It’s on a piece of paper, and you get voices like, “Oh, this guy is going to laugh about this, or this person’s going to hear this and think it’s stupid.” I have to fight through shyness. If I feel like “this is dumb,” and somebody laughs at the tune, tough shit. It’s not the end of the world. You say, “What’s the worst that can happen? So what? I’ll write another one,” or “I’ll change that tune.” And most of the time you get positive feedback.
I noticed you retired the Yamaha G-100.
Yeah, I finally retired it. I use these Roland Blues Cube things. This guy, Yoshi [Ikegami], that used to work with Boss a lot is now the CEO, and he’s a good friend, and he hooked me up with these amps. I use it at the 55 Bar and I used it for the whole recording. Two of them for the stereo thing. I like the air and the space in my sound. That’s why I use what I use, but these have a little bit more of a direct thing. I like the mids—there’s a kind of clarity to them.
How about the Pearce head you’ve used for decades?
I still use it, but only at the 55 Bar. I usually use Blackface Twins on the road because they’re easy to rent and they sound good. I might start using the Blues Cubes though. I try to do new things all the time, but with equipment I like to lay with the same things that work. I’m not a real strong pedal guy—some guys are amazing with it. There’s a lot of cool stuff but I like to minimize that. I still use the SPX90 [Yamaha], which is a billion years old. But I use it for one patch alone, #23, which is this harmonizer patch that has a nice, kind of chorus sound, but it’s not a chorus sound. It’s somewhat different. It fattens up the sound and gives it more air. I still use it, especially for quartet when there’s no piano. I tried to get someone to make just a pedal of that sound, and they can’t do it. I don’t know why. It’s digital. It should be easy. Someone who really knows about this shit told me that you can’t get that sound in a pedal. I still have to lug that thing around.
Having had the chance to jam with you before, I’ve heard you play many things that I’ve never heard you do anywhere else. Do you find that in concert or on a recording, you gravitate towards playing in a “Stern”-style that people expect?
No, sometimes that just happens naturally. When it’s time to perform, you don’t want to go for too much or think about it too much. You’re hearing the whole live picture. You’re thinking, “Boy, the drums sound fucking great.” So rather than think, like, “I can punch in here and do this new line,” that’s not what it’s about. There are times when we’ll play together and I’ll go for new stuff. I’ve got books of all these solos [points to stacks of hand-written transcriptions] and sometimes they fit in a real setting, but sometimes they don’t really fit, when you’re thinking about the whole picture. You gotta go with your impulse and your judgement at the time rather than think, “I’ve been practicing this voicing and I want to use it here.”
Within a couple of weeks after your comeback, you played several high-pressure, high-profile shows with Chick Corea and Kenny Garrett, who are, like, the best of the best on the planet.
That was rough. I was struggling. I didn’t know how to hold the pick, exactly. There were times when it was totally cool but that was when I found out I had to find some other way to hold the pick. I remember I stepped on my cable twice and Kenny Garrett had to put it back in for me.
And since then you’ve played with guys like Ulf Wakenius, who is also a monster guitarist. Do you enjoy these types of challenges?
Sure. I love it. I used to play with [saxist] Jerry Bergonzi, and it’s impossible to follow that cat. He has so much vocabulary and plays with so much dexterity, and swings so hard. I’ve always kind of put myself in situations where guys would kick my ass.
I guess having played extensively with Miles and Jaco Pastorius, as you did, will make anyone tough as nails.
No, no. They were rough personalities, but you get used to it. You can’t be too precious about it. When you’re writing music, it’s really wearing your heart on your sleeve. That’s why people sometimes are like, “Yeah, I’m a tough motherfucker.” It’s bullshit. Miles was a completely hypersensitive human being, and Jaco, too. Sometimes that’s why cats get into trying to anesthetize themselves. It’s a double-edged sword. You get this really beautiful gift so you’re generally a little more sensitive, but the other side of it is that things hurt a little more.
The first jazz gig I ever did, I was really scared. It was at a tiny place in Boston called Michael’s. Everybody that did gigs used to put up signs around Berklee to let people know they were playing, and I didn’t even want to put any signs up. This was the first gig that was mine and I was so nervous. The pick was falling out of my hand because I was shaking so much. It was so scary for me to do a jazz gig and put my name up anywhere, so I almost didn’t want anybody to show up. And no one did anyway, like three people were there—it was just a quartet and the band outnumbered the audience. By the second set, the guy said, “No one’s here so you can split.” I was really depressed after that. Then I said, “Well, I got nothing to lose so I’ll try again.” I think the second gig was actually worse, and then the third gig was a lot better. So, you just keep going.
Mike Stern tears it up with endless streams of long lines, all played at a blistering pace.