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Mike Stern - guitars , vocals and world vibe

In the end of the seventies - in 1978, he played Jazz-Rock in Billy Cobham´s band. Three years later he joined Miles Davis during his comeback-tour. After that he could be seen at the side of Jaco Pastorius and many others. Mike Stern is one of those few musicians who played with the "Greatest" already in the dawn of his career. His chance to find his very own way - up to now, as a leader, the guitarist published ten CDs for Atlantic Records. He is famous for his ultimately developed high-energy playing-style.

Mike Stern

His latest album "Voices" moves in a new direction. In the center - as the title implies - the human voice, used as a "vocal-instrument". The music features more "exotic" influences and instrumentation, including African and Middle-Eastern. This CD was a challenge for the participating musicians as well as it is one for the listener, who finds himself on new musical territory.

Carina: On your new CD "Voices" we find African and Middle Eastern influences and many more. How did the idea for this concept come to be? Voices singing melodies and singing lyrics are quite a big difference - is the human voice in this context "just another instrument?"

Mike: The idea to use vocalists on this CD was something I've wanted to try for a while now. Often, when I'm writing a new tune, I play the chords on the guitar and I sing the melody, and then write all that stuff down. So it seemed natural to get some real singers, and do a CD like this. Also, Richard Bona was very much an inspiration in making this CD. He's a wonderful musician. All the singers that I chose have very unique personalities in their styles - none of them are from the USA -, and the music reflects their influence. That's why the CD has kind of a "world" vibe.

Carina: There have been a lot of vocalists who auditioned for "Voices" - what were the reasons to decide in favor of the ones who are now on the album?

Mike: All the singers that I auditioned were great, so it was hard to choose, but I couldn't use everybody. In the end I chose the singers that I thought would be best for the direction of the music.

Carina: The producer of the album - Jim Beard - is himself a great musician. How does the cooperation between you two work? Who organizes, who judges the quality of the production in such a constellation? Does anyone have "the last word"?

Mike: Jim Beard is an amazing musician, and a wonderful producer. He has always helped me in a very thoughtful way, and every time we've worked together he's put a lot of energy into each project. Of course he has a lot of ideas - he's very creative -, but as a producer, he also knows when to let go. I think the guy is a genius. Also, he's amazingly patient with me when I go crazy, which happens at least three times an hour on every project I've ever done.

Mike Stern - "Voices"

Carina: "Voices" is your 10th album for Atlantic Records - didn't you ever think about moving to another record company? Would they give you 'carte blanche' for your ideas and support you under all circumstances?

Mike: I've been lucky to be on Atlantic for all ten of my CDs, and this has worked very well for me. I like the people at Atlantic, and the people at WEA - the distribution company. I hope the relationship can last as long as possible.

Carina: Some titles of your CDs are laconic and short, like "Play" or "Voices" - others rather comprehensive. What do your titles express connected with the music? Do they form a personal code" e.g. "Between the Lines" may have a completely different meaning for the listener!

Mike: The titles I choose seem to me to fit the vibe of the music. I guess sometimes the titles are very direct - like "Play" or "Voices" - and other times are more suggestive - "Upside Downside". Hopefully the music speaks for itself.

Carina: Everybody is going to ask you about your time with Miles Davis - what would you say was the most important thing you learned from him?

Mike: Miles always played his heart out. That's the most important thing I learned from him. Also, he had a way of reaching people, and still was true to himself. That balance is always a challenge.

Carina: After having played with every important musician of the Jazz and Jazz-Rock scene and being considered a star yourself, doesn't this make it difficult to find new challenges or to develop new musical ideas?

Mike: Music is endless. There are so many possibilities. I feel like the more I know, the less I know. Of course, there are always new challenges, new things to try. I think my latest CD is a very good example of this. It's a new approach for me, and it was definitely a challenge. Like anything else that you try for the first time, it was a little scary, but I'm glad I did it and really happy with the way it came out.

Carina: In our online magazine Jazzdimensions we also interviewed Jeff Berlin. You, too, played on Jeff's last album "In Harmony's Way". What does his music mean to you? Has a sideman job the same musical importance and intensity as like a leader?

Mike: Jeff's a wonderful player and writer and a good friend for years, and it was really fun to play on his last album. Working as a sideman is, of course, different than doing your own record. It's got its own challenges. I guess the main thing is to give the leader what he wants while keeping true to your own voice.

Mike Stern

Carina: As a child you sang in the church choir. Did it become more "natural" to express yourself with your guitar rather than with your voice? Did you ever think about singing again and playing guitar in public?

Mike: The voice was, in a way, my first instrument and I feel like I try to play the guitar with a kind of vocal quality. I think I'm a little shy of actually literally singing in a performance though, so it's a pretty safe bet that'll never happen.

Carina: People often call you one of the "fastest" guitarists. Does it mean something for you to be "fast"? How do expectations of the audience influence your music?

Mike: I listen to lots of saxophone and piano players and try to play some of those ideas on the guitar. Sometimes that's technically demanding, so I developed some chops over the years. Chops are the least important thing about music though. Having your own sound, and playing from the heart; to me that's what's most important.

Chops are the least important thing about music.
Playing from the heart that's what's most important!

Carina: Could you imagine, after playing with so many people, after realizing so many plans, to stop playing music altogether or to switch to a totally different instrument? Is there a danger to lose energy over the years?

Mike: Studying music and practicing music seems to keep me energized, so far anyway. I hope I'll always have energy for music, 'cause I love it.

Mike Stern

Carina: Leni Stern, your wife, is a guitarist too, and she also sings very well. What about doing an album together? Are there some plans like this for the future?

Mike: I love Leni's music, and we'll probably do some kinda collaboration sooner or later. Generally, we´ve kept our careers separate, 'cause we´d rather stay married. So far so good; we´ve been married twenty-one years.

Carina: What is your philosophy for life?

Mike: Now that's a nice easy question! I guess when I think about it my philosophy for life is kind of the same as for music. Basically I just do the best I can to develop my potential, whatever that may be, and try to be true to myself and follow my heart. - While doing all that, it is most imperative to have as much fun as possible!

Carina Prange

Mike Stern im Internet: www.mikestern.org

mehr bei Jazzdimensions:
Jeff Berlin - bass-icon and dedicated teacher - Interview (erschienen: 21.10.2001)
Jim Beard - not afraid to use humor! - Interview (erschienen: 30.11.1999)
Jeff Berlin - "In Harmony´s Way" - Review (erschienen: 29.7.2001)

Fotos: Atlantic

© jazzdimensions2002
erschienen: 15.1.2002
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