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Beyond the Riffs: Mike Stern’s “Wishing Well”

The jazz-rock master takes us inside a tune from his latest collaboration with Eric Johnson.

Chops: Beginner
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Learn how to play lyrically over simple harmonies.
• Discover how to improve your sense of time.
• Create lines that mix pentatonics and chord tones.

Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

I met Eric Johnson about 10 years ago at B.B. King’s club in New York. Eric’s bassist, Chris Maresh, introduced us, and I immediately told him that we needed to play together. Eventually all the schedules aligned, and about five years ago I had Eric play a few tracks on my Big Neighborhood album. The stuff with Eric just felt so natural: I discovered we had the same sensibilities about how we want the guitar to sound, and musically we had so much in common.

Once again our schedules lined up and we were able to not only do some gigs together, but also record a full album. Eclectic came together fairly quickly, which is how we wanted it. I think there’s a great thing about working in the studio. It’s different from playing live because you can really get a good mix happening and you have a little more control. On this record, we erred on the side of the live vibe. Which, as a jazz player, is what I always strive for. I want everyone in the studio, even if the album has a bunch of guests on it. There’s nothing like it. Plus, you make last-minute decisions when you’re playing together that you wouldn’t if you were overdubbing the tracks over a period of time.

When I was recording with Miles Davis we had this tune called “Fat Time,” which is also what Miles used to call me. I really wanted to redo the guitar solo, but Miles said “Fat Time, when you’re at a party you got to know when to leave.” It was one of the best lessons I ever learned.

“Wishing Well” was one of the tunes I brought into the Eclectic session. I had previously recorded it on Voices and I thought Eric’s orchestral-sounding voicings would be perfect for this tune. We changed it a bit so he had a long solo at the end, and it sounds amazing. It really lent itself to the transparency of the tune with almost a folk-style melody.Download the full lead sheet to see what we began with in the studio.

The way I wrote it originally was the way I write a lot of tunes: I basically sing the melody while I play the chords. (A few of my tunes wouldn’t lend themselves to that very well, like “Chromazone.” It’s not impossible, but it just isn’t a vocal-oriented tune.) I wanted to get a real contrapuntal sketch with just the bass and melody. You can imply quite a bit of harmony with just two voices. I’ve always loved Bill Frisell’s minimalist open-sounding playing. I’m very partial to that flavor—it’s almost like a singer-songwriter.

I wanted the bass to play a pedal tone while the melody floats over the top—something that worked and sounded like two melodies going at once. In live settings, I take the melody, but Eric touches on it too in his orchestrations and unique voicings. There are bits of the melody in there. A lot of times he’s playing some pedal-steel stuff or light fingerpicking.

I sang on the first part of the tune and Christopher Cross comes in on the bridge. Originally, I wanted Christopher to sing through the whole thing, but he liked the way I sang the tune, so I told him the least he could do was to sing the bridge. I really dig his voice, and he’s been a friend of Eric’s for years.

When someone’s playing a lot of stuff, you need to play less. Less chords. Less information. That’s how Eric and I play together. If he’s playing a lot of lines, I might just lay out and have the bass and guitar carry everything. I approach it as if we’re two trios playing at the same time. You want to leave space, but have some counterpoint. The B section, or the bridge, is where Cross comes in. I’m into it. I try to get it so the melody really sings. I like tunes that are lyrical and a melody that’s memorable.

I take the first solo. Then we go back to the bridge. Eric may have added some piano on the second bridge—so sparse you almost can’t hear it. Then we just start the tune over again with the bass line. After that, we hit the vamp before opening up for Eric’s solo.

Here are three transcribed licks from my solo. I think they offer a pretty good idea about my harmonic approach to this tune. Ex. 1 contains a lyrical phrase I play at 2:33. In the second four measures, I keep a pedal tone on top while moving the notes below it. That’s something I copped from Jim Hall. It’s not a “chops” thing, just something musical that builds tension.

In Ex. 2 I play over a static D major triad at 2:53. On a tune like this that has such a consonant feel, I didn’t want to play any altered stuff. Instead I work with more pentatonic-based ideas and moved the intervals around a bit. You can see in the third measure I slip in some B minor pentatonic elements, which sound great over D major.

The ending lick of my solo is in Ex. 3 and happens at 3:11. There are changes here, but I still keep things simple and don’t use any “jazz” chords, just major and minor triads. After building up in the first three measures with those triplets, I return to the melodic approach I used before and focus on playing something you could sing.

Finally, I want to talk a little bit about time and playing in the pocket. I think I have some kind of natural ability—to a point, anyway—where I can get into a groove. I guess Miles implied that when he’d call me “Fat Time.” Sometimes I practice with a metronome and sometimes without, and I’ll tape myself to hear if I’m rushing or dragging or if my playing feels relaxed.

When I first started playing music, especially jazz, I was nervous, so then I’d rush. I’d have to think consciously about laying back. Eventually, the groove would take over and I’d put my focus on the drummer and try to melt into whatever feel was going on. People’s voices on a particular instrument are defined just as much by what they can’t do as what they can do. So just try to do what you can do while staying in the groove.