Mike Stern - the man on The Man with the Horn


As music anniversaries go it’s not quite up there with Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra’s recent centenaries but the thirty-fifth anniversary of guitarist Mike Stern’s first UK appearance is something to celebrate.


Those who were lucky enough to catch that gig – in Dundee with former Mahavishnu Orchestra drummer Billy Cobham’s band – still talk about Stern’s incendiary impact and as luck would have it, when Stern guests with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra next weekend he’ll mark the anniversary by stepping out on a stage just a mile or two east of the one he graced with Cobham in 1981.


The excitement Stern caused back then with his fantastically expressive, blues-drenched, very alive playing was heightened by the fact that he wasn’t even the guitarist who was advertised as playing.


“That’s right,” says the always affable Stern down the line from New York. “Billy called me in Boston, where I was living at the time, and said he had a tour coming up in a few days but his guitar player wasn’t going to make it, could I come down to New York and try out with his band? So I did and it was great. I knew Billy from Mahavishnu, of course, and I’d heard him with a bunch of other people but I hadn’t realised just how much he swung. Boy, that was an experience.”


Stern’s next assignment was an experience also. A few months after the Dundee gig, Miles Davis released his comeback album, The Man with the Horn, and there on the first track, Fat Time, was Stern letting rip. Once again he was the go-to guy when another guitarist dropped out of the picture and he took his chance.


“Bill Evans, the saxophone playing one, told Miles about me and brought him down to the Bottom Line, a club in New York that’s not there anymore unfortunately, to see me playing with Billy Cobham,” says Stern.


“Miles liked guitar and he got me into the studio and there were no parts written out or anything. He just started vamping on a Fender Rhodes. Marcus Miller was on bass and he picked up the vibe and then Miles said [adopts the famous Davis rasp] ‘just play something’. So I went for it. After I’d finished the solo I said, Miles, we should run through that again because I can do better – I felt I’d gone off a bit in a couple of places – and he said, ‘Fat Time (he called the track after me because I was a bit heavier in those days and he liked my time feel) when you’re at a party, sometimes you’ve gotta know when to leave.’ And that was it. The record came out and I’m there playing a first take.”


Stern went on to enjoy two periods with Davis, interrupted by a spell when he and his great friend and gigging partner, bass guitar pioneer Jaco Pastorius were, to use a more polite term than Stern’s own, on the spree – and then some. Stern went into rehab (Pastorius went into a horrible, fatal decline exacerbated by mental health problems and an overzealous club bouncer) and he recovered to deliver many more passages of skill and excitement, often in the company of saxophonists.


Michael Brecker, David Sanborn, Bob Berg and the aforementioned Bill Evans have all called on or teamed up with Stern’s high octane services. In fact, Evans and Stern still have a touring band that includes drummer Dennis Chambers and when the Rolling Stones don’t require his skills, bass guitarist Darryl Jones.


“Yeah, I have a real affinity with horn players in general,” says Stern. “I’ve always loved the vocal quality that a lot of tenor saxophone players have and I don’t mind admitting that that’s the sound I’ve always wanted to get on the guitar. I also love to play lines that I think a tenor player might play.”


These days, having joined the galaxy of stars who have guitar models made to their own specifications, he plays those lines on a Mike Stern signature guitar. That’s the one he’ll be using on his tour with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, a trip he’s looking forward to immensely having guested on the orchestra’s American Adventure album.


“That band is so hip and yet so traditional,” he says. “They can do anything. I don’t do a lot of big band jazz because they don’t tend to call guitarist for those gigs. But I love it when I get the chance. It’s funny because I was going to be doing some big band arranging in my final year at college years ago, because I love working with horns so much, but instead I got a gig with a horn band, Blood Sweat & Tears, and I never got around to working on my arranging chops. It’s something I’d still love to do, so I’ll be watching and listening for ideas on those gigs with the orchestra.”


From The Herald, February 17, 2016


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