Born Michael Stern on January 10, 1953, in Boston, MA; married composer/guitarist Leni Stern. Education: Attended Berklee College of Music in Boston; studied with Mick Goodrick and Charlie Banacos. Addresses: Record company--Atlantic Records, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York City, NY 10104 Phone: (212) 707-2000.

A hard-edged experimental guitarist who rose to fame playing with Miles Davis in the 1980s, Mike Stern has earned a reputation as a bandleader and sideman for his work in bebop and hard bop, as well as his skillful technique playing fusion, straight-ahead jazz, and jazz-rock. His extraordinary career, spanning from his 1986 Atlantic Records debut Upside Down through his 1999 album Play, illustrates his unique ability to master an array of styles, from rock, funk, and the blues, to improvised jazz and alternative music--all of which he counts as personal influences. "A heroic soloist who has the ability to push the envelope to Hendrixian heights," asserted Bill Milkowski in the guitarist's official online biography, "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."

Born on January 10, 1953, in Boston, Massachusetts, and raised in Washington, D.C., Stern began to learn guitar at the age of 12, emulating the styles of legendary blues and rock players. "I started out listening and playing along with the records of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, and a lot of blues--B.B. King, Albert King, that kind of stuff," he told Howard Mandel of Down Beat. "Then I got into 'jazz' a few years later, when I was around 17, and found it was a little more involved. As an ear player, I'd get lost in about two seconds."

Realizing that he wanted to further explore the intricacies of jazz music, in 1971 Stern enrolled at the esteemed Berklee College of Music, where he studied the genre seriously. He immersed himself in the records of great bandleaders, like trumpet players Miles Davis and John Coltrane alongside pianists such as McCoy Tyner and Bill Evans. He studied guitar with Mick Goodrick, among others, and met and played with fellow guitarists Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, and John Scofield. "Mick Goodrick had a large influence actually on Frisell, Sco and myself," Stern recalled to Mandel. "There was a whole thing around the way Mick played guitar in Boston at that time. His approach was a bit removed from traditional jazz guitar: less percussive, more legato, more string-bending and definitely more phrasing from rock and funk. My generation of players were all more into that, because we'd been in Top 40 bands playing that way coming up. For jazz guitarists today, it's impossible to ignore what everybody's playing." During his stay at Berklee, Stern also developed an appreciation for jazz guitarists such as Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall; both musicians significantly influenced his own playing, yet the guitarist would remain just as inspired by the styles of artists such as Hendrix, alternative-rock icon Beck, and blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan over the years.

Stern's first professional gig occurred in 1976, when, upon the recommendation of Metheny, he landed a spot with the group Blood, Sweat and Tears. Remaining with this group for the next two years, Stern appeared on two Blood, Sweat and Tears albums--More Than Ever and Brand New Day--before returning to Boston to study with local jazz guru Charlie Banacos. "He's a piano player who works with all instruments. I've been studying off and on with him for years.... He's the best teacher I've ever found. He gives you all kinds of stuff--classical, chromatic, horn studies. At the same time, he pulls for non-symmetrical, wide-open ideas," Stern, an avid student throughout his career, explained in an interview with Guitar Player's Jesse Gress.

Called to Play with Davis

In 1979, Stern joined drummer Billy Cobham's powerhouse jazz-rock fusion band, a stint that lasted two years, before he received a call to play with Miles Davis. By now, Stern was known for his fast and fluid, highly expressive personal style that integrated rock, blues, and jazz. Davis, too, came to appreciate the guitarist's array of influences. "Miles liked what I was doing in that regard," he recalled to Mandel, "because the first time he said, 'We're going to go on the road.' I asked, 'Who's going to play keyboards?' and he said, 'No keyboards, just you.' I said, 'Are you kidding?' And Miles said, 'Don't worry about it, just play. I'll hear it.' Miles wanted that vibe--scaled down, really raw, just guitar, without a whole lot of chords."

Accepting Davis's offer, Stern made his first public appearance with the group on June 27, 1981, at the Kix nightclub in Boston, a performance documented on the 1982 live album We Want Miles. Stern continued to play with Davis through 1983, appearing for two more albums with his group: 1981's The Man With the Horn and 1983's Star People. From 1983 to 1984, Stern toured with Word of Mouth, a band led by Jaco Pastorius, before returning to Davis's band for another year-long tour in 1985. After this, Stern continued to accompany other musicians. In the summer of 1986, he toured with saxophonist David Sanborn; later that year, he joined Steps Ahead, a group also featuring vibraphonist Mike Mainieri, saxophonist Michael Brecker, bassist Victor Bailey, and drummer Steve Smith. Stern's debut under his own name for Atlantic Records entitled Upside Downside, featuring Sanborn, Patorius, saxophonist Bob Berg, bassists Mark Egan and Jeff Andrews, keyboardist Mitch Forman, and drummers Dave Weckl and Steve Jordan, was also released in 1986.

Stern served in Michael Brecker's acclaimed quintet from 1986 though 1988, then released his second Atlantic album, 1988's Time in Place. Again, Stern assimilated a cast of well-known names as his backing band: Peter Erskine on drums, Jim Beard on keyboards, Jeff Andrews on bass, Don Alias on percussion, and Don Grolnick on organ. Next came 1989's Jigsaw, featuring Stern's tribute piece to Davis entitled "Chief," another successful album produced by fellow guitarist Steve Khan. In 1989, Stern formed a touring group with Bob Berg, drummer Dennis Chambers, and bassist Lincoln Goines; the quartet continued to work together through 1992 and appeared for the guitarist's third Atlantic release, that year's Odds or Evens.

An Open-minded Player

Also in 1992, Stern joined a reunited Brecker Brothers Band, and his guitar work proved one of the key reasons for the group's popular success over the following two years. In the meantime, Stern in 1993 released the acclaimed Standards (and Other Songs), a decidedly more introspective album for the guitarist that led Guitar Player magazine's readers and critics alike to name him Best Jazz Guitarist of the Year. "I love the tunes. I like memorable melodies, and obviously standards have that," he told Bill Milkowski and Jesse Gress in Guitar Player about making the album. "But it's hard to say what a jazz standard really is. I guess a loose definition is a song that was originally written for a Broadway musical or for a movie and has been covered by singers, which is where the whole vocal approach to playing them comes in. But from a playing standpoint, these tunes are a part of a common language. You can play them with a whole bunch of different people. You just call the tune, and they know it because they've played it a thousand times. So in that respect, I love playing standards because it's relatively easy. You don't have to scuffle through reading heads and learning the material. You can just play."

For 1994's Is What It Is, an album offering another great contribution by Brecker on tenor saxophone, Stern "returned to the fusion fray with a vengeance," Milkowski commented in Down Beat. Another hard-hitting effort, Between the Lines, followed in 1996 and won rave reviews for its broad musical interests. "You can't argue with your heart," Stern said, explaining his method of searching for musical direction to Down Beat's Michael Point. "I try to give everything I hear a chance," the guitarist continued. "I don't think there's one musical direction that's right with all the others being wrong. I just listen for honesty, for something that touches my heart as well as my intellect, and if it's there the music catches my interest." Both the richly textured Between the Lines and Is What It Is, a collection of original compositions, earned Stern two Grammy Award nominations.

In 1996, Stern returned to an overall jazz-inspired aesthetic with Give and Take, a more spontaneous recording featuring John Patitucci on acoustic bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums, as well as guest appearances by Alias, Brecker, Sanborn, and Gil Goldstein on piano. "Stern's playing has never been better--he's inquisitive, excitable as always, and focused," wrote Robin Tolleson for Down Beat in a review of the session. Upon the strength of Give and Take, which included covers of Sonny Rollins' "Oleo," Coltrane's "Giant Steps," and Cole Porter's "I Love You" alongside a rendition of Hendrix's "Who Knows" and originals like the bebop "Hook Up," Stern won the Orville W. Gibson Award that year for Best Jazz Guitarist.

Trio of Guitars for Play

Taking a new approach for his ninth Atlantic album, 1999's Play, Stern decided to indulge in an idea he had held for some time--to record with other guitarists. Thus, he summoned both Scofield and Frisell to take part. "I've never recorded with another guitarist, so when I decided to do it, those two guys were the obvious choices," Stern told Darrin Fox of Guitar Player. "They're both good friends of mine. Bill and I used to sit around and play standards together in the early '70s, and Sco and I played with Miles Davis. And although we're all jazz guitarists, each of us grew up in the '60s, so influences like Hendrix, B.B. King, James Brown, the Ventures, and the Beatles make up big parts of our style. Plus, the three of us listen to other instruments for ideas. My style reflects a lot of the horn influence--so does Sco's--and Frisell takes a more pianistic approach."

Recorded at the rock band Pearl Jam's studio, Litho, with appearances by Dennis Chambers and Ben Perowsky on drums, Goines on bass, and Bob Malach on saxophone, Play won Stern further acclaim, yet was also an enjoyable recording to make. "That's why this album's called Play, after all," he noted to Mandel. "Obviously, there's a lot of playing on the album, but it's supposed to be fun, too. Because if you can't have fun playing music, you're in trouble." The pleasure derived from music, Stern believed, was the single factor that kept him motivated throughout his 20-year career. As he explained to Gress: "Music is such a gift. There are times of scuffling, when you feel like you're pushing a rock up a hill and you're not where you want to be. But as soon as you start playing, it's like, 'I'm just going to develop my potential on the instrument.' When music does something for you, that's a gift. The fact that you can get lost in something so beautiful is amazing."

A fixture on the New York jazz club scene and on the jazz album charts throughout the 1990s, Stern made his home in Manhattan, where he lives with wife Leni Stern--a successful composer and guitarist in her own right--in a modest apartment. Although his wife would seem a perfect musical collaborator, Mike and Leni Stern prefer to keep their professional lives separate. They have never played on one another's albums or given interviews together. "I'm constantly asking her about my stuff. I very much respect her opinion with regard to playing and writing. She's a terrific musician," Stern explained to Milkowski and Gress. "But we draw the line at playing together. And who knows if that's forever? Sometimes your profession becomes all-encompassing, so sometimes we avoid talking about it. We'll just say, 'Talk about anything else but music.' Maybe that's why it's worked out so great."

In addition to his solo work, Stern has appeared on recordings as a sideman for numerous musicians and groups including Les Arbuckle, Thomas Barth, Marc Beacco, Jim Beard, Bob Beldon, Bob Berg, Jerry Bergonzi, Charles Blenzig, Bunny Brunel, David Clayton-Thomas, Billy Cobham, Michael Cunningham and Four Corners, Michael Gerber, Lincoln Goines, David Alan Gross, Jim Hall, Tom Harrell, Joe Henderson, Motohiko Hino, Dieter Ilg, Jazzsick, Jens Johansson, Shinichi Kato, Scott Kreitzer, Dave Larue, Eric Le Lann, Pete Levin, the Peter Linhart Group, Didier Lockwood, Michael Manther, Andrea Marcelli, Andrea Marchesini, Pat Martino, Pippo Martino, Thierry Mineau, Dan Moretti, Shunzo O'No, Tiger Okoshi, Ed Palermo, Eddie Palmieri, Jaco Pastorius, Georg Pommer, Michael Pope, Jeff Richman, Alex Riel, Doug Robinson, Randy Roos, Arturo Sandoval, Steve Slagle, Steve Smith, Lew Soloff, Spajazzy, Mr. Spats, Harvie Swartz, Michal Urbaniak, Jukkis Uotila, Roland Vazquez, and Kimo Williams.

by Laura Hightower

Mike Stern's Career

Started playing guitar at age 12; joined Blood, Sweat and Tears, 1976-78; played with Billy Cobham, 1979-81; played with Miles Davis, 1981-83 and 1985; toured with Word of Mouth, 1983-84; toured with David Sanborn, played with Steps Ahead, released Atlantic Records debut Upside Downside, 1986; played with Michael Brecker's quintet, 1986-88; played with a reunited Brecker Brothers Band, 1993; released Standards (and Other Songs), 1993; released Grammy Award-nominated albums Is What It Is, 1994, and Between the Lines, 1996; released Play, 1999.

Mike Stern's Awards

Best Jazz Guitarist of the Year, Guitar Player, 1993; Orville W. Gibson Award for Best Jazz Guitarist, 1996.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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