To a generation of contemporary jazz guitar aficionados, Mike Stern is regarded as one of the true guitar greats of his generation. A player of remarkable facility whose searing lines are informed mainly by bebop and the blues while also carrying a rock-tinged intensity, Stern made his mark with Miles Davis in the early ‘80s before launching his solo career in 1985. Since then he has released 17 recordings as a leader, six of which were nominated for GRAMMY® Awards. His latest, Trip, is his first since recovering from a serious accident in the summer of 2016 that left him with two broken arms and nerve damage in his right hand that prevented him from even holding a pick. But Stern is back on top of his game, playing with typical authority and prodigious chops on this all-star outing, which features such longstanding colleagues as trumpeters Randy Brecker and Wallace Roney, saxophonists Bob Franceschini and Bill Evans (a bandmate of Mike’s in Miles Davis’ ‘comeback band’ of 1981), bassists Victor Wooten and Tom Kennedy and drummers Dave Weckl, Dennis Chambers and Lenny White.
Says Stern of the whole arduous journey that led to this triumphant comeback album: “Sometimes you have some bad stuff that’ll happen to you, but you kind of get through it and you realize that everybody has this stuff — good trips and bad trips. But you just gotta keep trying, you gotta get up and keep going as soon as you can, which I was able to do. I had to figure out a way to play. I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t play music. If you really want something bad enough, sometimes you have to fight for it; you find a way to make it happen. And now I have friends who I trust who tell me that they wouldn’t have noticed any difference in my playing if I hadn’t told them what happened to me.”
Born in Boston on January 10, 1953, Stern grew up in Washington, DC, then returned to Boston to study at the Berklee College of Music where he met and befriended fellow Berklee students like guitarists John Scofield and Bill Frisell, bassist Jeff Berlin, drummers Steve Smith and Vinnie Colaiuta. He got his first big break in 1976 going out on tour with Blood, Sweat & Tears, appearing on the group’s studio More Than Ever and live album In Concert that year and also on 1977’s Brand New Day. After touring and recording for two years with the popular rock band he was recruited by former Mahavishnu Orchestra drummer Billy Cobham for a stint in his powerhouse fusion band Glass Menagerie from 1979 to early 1981. Stern was subsequently recruited by Miles Davis and was part of the jazz legend’s celebrated comeback band (with bassist Marcus Miller, drummer Al Foster, percussionist Mino Cinelu and saxophonist Bill Evans), making his public debut with Miles on June 27, 1981 at the KIX nightclub in Boston (a performance documented on the 1982 live album We Want Miles). During his three-year period with Miles, Stern appeared on two other recordings with the jazz maestro – 1981’s Man with the Horn and 1983’s Star People. He later toured with Jaco Pastorius’ Word of Mouth Band from 1983 through 1985 then returned to Miles’ lineup for a second tour of duty that lasted close to a year.
In 1985, Stern made his recording debut as a leader with Neesh on the Japanese Trio label. A year later, he made his Stateside debut as a leader on Atlantic Records with Upside Downside, which featured such celebrated colleagues as alto saxophonist David Sanborn, tenor saxophonist Bob Berg, bassists Mark Egan, Jeff Andrews and Jaco Pastorius, keyboardist Mitch Forman and drummers Dave Weckl and Steve Jordan. In the summer of 1986, Stern took to the road with David Sanborn and later joined an electrified edition of Steps Ahead, which featured Mike Mainieri on midi vibes, Michael Brecker on the Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI), Darryl Jones on electric bass and Steve Smith on drums. That powerhouse fusion outfit was documented on Live in Tokyo 1986. Over the next two years, Stern was a member of Michael Brecker’s potent quintet, appearing on the tenor titan’s 1988 album, Don’t Try This At Home.
Stern was presented with Guitar Player magazine’s Certified Legend Award on January 21, 2012.
On Trip, Stern shifts from his scorched-earth distortion laced licks on the title track and “Screws” to his patented fleet-fingered burn on the three swingers paced by Return To Forever Lenny White — the Rhythm Changes number “Half Crazy,” “Scotch Tape and Glue” (based on the changes to “On Green Dolphin Street”) and “B Train” (his quirky contrafact on “Take the A Train”). Elsewhere on this all-star outing, he shows rare sensitivity on his tender nylon string acoustic ballad “Gone” and on “Amelia,” which marks his second appearance on record as a vocalist (his first was on the lyrical tune “Wishing Well” from Electric, his 2014 collaboration with fellow guitar hero Eric Johnson). “Singing is kind of second nature for me,” says Stern. “I sometimes sing the melody when I’m writing a tune. I’ll be playing chords on the guitar and I’ll start singing a melody and then write it down. I got the nerve to do it from that record I did with Eric Johnson and I’m doing it more on the gig too. And it’s cool because I’ve always tried to get that more vocal sound on the electric guitar. So the two go hand-in-hand.”
Stern is definitely back on top of his game after months of struggle and uncertainty. And in typically humble fashion, he defers to his bandmates on this all-star session. “Everybody played their asses off on this record,” he says of Trip. “I was really happy with how it came out, because everybody just put so much love and energy into it. When I get to play with the caliber of musicians on this recording, I'm just glad to be part of the band.”