Jazz guitarist Mike Stern taps a wide stylistic spectrum

Mike Stern.
Sandrine Lee
Mike Stern.

Mike Stern likes to work with a lot of people.

The influential jazz guitarist’s upcoming calendar includes tours leading at least three distinct quartets, a week of shows in New Zealand as featured guest with a jazz orchestra, and a one-off at Berklee Performance Center on Monday with a trio. His latest album, 2012’s “All Over the Place,” lists 21 special guests, continuing a trend of wide-ranging collaboration exhibited on his previous two studio efforts.

“I love what I’m getting to do now, just play with different people who inspire the hell out of me,” Stern says, on the phone from his home in Manhattan.


Stern has brought his pristine guitar tone to various spots on the jazz-rock spectrum, though he frequently returns to a basic jazz sensibility rooted in the work of the mid-20th-century bebop greats. He draws particular influence from horn players, and tellingly cites sax greats Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt when listing his favorite musicians.

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He’s speaking the day before a six-night run at New York’s Blue Note with yet another project, a band with guitarist Eric Johnson, a player with more of a blues-rock pedigree. This group teases out some of the more rocking elements in his sound. Yet this is nothing new for Stern, who snagged one of his early jobs with Miles Davis’s “comeback” group in 1981, drafted in to play bracing guitar parts alongside the jazz legend on his much-anticipated return from a five-year hiatus. (A concert review in The New York Times described one of his riffs as heavy metal.)

“Even with Miles, he wanted me to rock. He wanted a Hendrix kind of vibe and he always told me that. But I was playing some bebop lines too, because it’s so much in my vocabulary and I can’t get enough of it,” Stern says. “It’s obvious from my records that there’s a whole lot of music that has reached my heart over the years. So it comes out in my writing and playing, and I don’t fight it.”

For his latest series of albums, Stern has given his Rolodex a workout, recruiting guests ranging from bright young stars like Esperanza Spalding to fellow Davis alumni Dave Holland and Al Foster. The 2009 album “Big Neighborhood” kicks off with a funky, chunky title track laced with some of Stern’s more bluesy lead lines, but closes with the breezy hard bop number “Hope You Don’t Mind,” a tune that sounds wholly untouched by the innovations of fusion.

For Monday’s show, which is part of an annual series focusing on guitar greats, he’ll be joined by drummer Richie Morales, a longtime collaborator from various contexts probably best known for his work with Spyro Gyra, and Azerbaijan-born bassist Teymur Phell, a relative newcomer to the United States jazz scene.


Morales says a gig with Stern offers the chance to paint with varied musical colors.

“It’s got a very broad dynamic range and so you can play really quiet with brushes, like a whisper, and then it grows and you can be playing like a power trio,” Morales says. “All players who play with Mike enjoy the gig because it’s got such a broad stylistic range.”

The variety of musical partners keeps him creative, says Stern, whose records also serve as a platform for his original compositions. “You get so inspired, you get more of it with each person. I just wasn’t sure if I could get all these people and make it work on the record, but it holds together.”

Stern was steeped in the rock music of the day when he started out at Berklee College of Music in the early 1970s, but turned his attention to jazz with encouragement from teachers like fellow guitarist Pat Metheny, who had recently become the school’s youngest instructor at age 19.

With Metheny’s help, Stern scored an audition to work with Blood, Sweat and Tears at age 22. To his surprise, he got the job. Three years playing with the group, and a stint in drummer Billy Cobham’s band, solidified Stern’s fusion credentials ahead of the high-profile gig with Davis. He later worked with Jaco Pastorius before striking out as a leader in the mid-’80s.


Stern savored the chance to work with the greats as a young musician, though he says he was held back at the time by long-running troubles with substance abuse. “I was strung out like a clothesline, to put it bluntly,” he says. “Miles actually tried to put me in rehab at one point, so you can tell how bad I was doing.” (He’s been sober now about 30 years, he adds.)

Other musicians with similar problems reached out to him, he says, and gave him a positive impression of the strength he could draw from his peers — even one who was known to cultivate an aloof, standoffish image.

“If you didn’t know Miles, you wouldn’t know what a great sense of humor he had. He was sometimes one of the sweetest people, and was profoundly sensitive even though it wouldn’t seem like it,” Stern says “He would say something that showed he knew exactly what was going on with you.”

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.