Jazz guitarist to share his passion for music at BGSU Orchard Guitar Festival

Mike Stern (Image provided/Sandrine Lee)

By DAVID DUPONT

BG Independent News 

When jazz guitarist Mike Stern stumbled on a sidewalk in New York City on July 3, 2016, and fell and broke both his arms, that seemed bad enough.

Then five days later before he was to go in for surgery he developed nerve damage in his right hand.

Then, he admits, he panicked. “It was amazingly scary because I love to play so much,” he said in a recent telephone interview. So much of his life is revolves around playing the guitar. More than his career, it’s his passion.

So in a way he didn’t have a choice but to address the problem. “I settled down and figured it out.”

Stern found a specialist who could treat him, and he devoted all his energy to recovering.

Within several months he was back performing. That required adjustments. He used wig glue to affix his pick to his finger. He learned that trick from a drummer who lost most of the joints in his hands from burns when he was a child.

“I always encourage students to keep going,” Stern said.

Stern will be visiting Bowling Green State University, where he last played in winter, 2014, on Saturday, Sept. 29,  on the second day of the two-day Orchard Guitar Festival http://bgindependentmedia.org/mike-stern-headlines-orchard-guitar-festival-at-bgsu/. He’ll share that advice, talk about his love of bebop, and more at a master class at 2:30 p.m. in Bryan Recital Hall. At 8 p.m. that night he’ll perform with the faculty jazz ensemble in Kobacker Hall. Tickets for the evening concert are $7 and $3 for students in advance from bgsu.edu/arts or 419-372-8171, and $10 the day of the show. 

The more someone plays “the closer you get to the music,” Stern, 65, said.

Life has no guarantees, he said. “The only guarantee in music is that you’re going to have the music and no one can take it away from you.… You’ll have the music no matter what you have to do to make bread.”

But the more someone puts into the music, the more options they have whether that’s performing or teaching.

“The most important ingredient,” Stern said, “is you’ve got to water the flowers.” That’s means practicing. Musicians also need to “keep learning new stuff.”

Guitar offers a world of new styles and techniques to learn. The instrument has flourished around the world from country music to transcriptions of lute music by Bach.

The guitar basics are easy to learn, though mastery is difficult to achieve. 

Stern incorporates as much of that into his own work. “When I write I like to put some of those influences in.”

He reaches beyond his instrument though. He studies pianists such as Herbie Hancock, and horn players such as Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt., and incorporates that into his playing. “It feels natural when I do it. It feels like that’s what I’m meant to do.”

More and more Stern brings a vocal element into his music. He encourages his students to sing along with their guitar lines, even inaudibly. “It makes it feel like it comes from the heart.”

His new album, “Trip” — the title a darkly humorous reference to his accident — employs those vocal sounds. Sometimes it’s actual voices, sometimes it’s the way Stern uses electronic effects.

Recorded after the accident, the session shows no ill effects. Instead it’s full of the assured, smooth virtuosity that Stern has perfected over the years.

Stern, who grew up in Washington D.C., started playing guitar at 12. He played rock and blues. He’d go up into his room and study recordings of Motown, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix. As he got older he played some jazz, but it was a struggle.

Then at Berklee College of Music in Boston he had his breakthrough. In Boston he was able to study with Mick Goodrick, the Gary Burton’s guitarist, and guitar legend-in-the-making Pat Metheny. Metheny heard something he liked in the younger guitarist’s style, and helped bolster his confidence. Stern also studied theory with pianist Charlie Banacos, lessons he continued when he moved to New York.

That schooling embedded bop in his music. “That’s been my priority,” he said. “I still like to play the blues, and like to rock. I didn’t say goodbye to those influences, I kept them in my style.”

Fusion was in the air, but Stern’s ear was tuned to bebop. “I got into fusion to a point,” he said. He particularly liked the Brecker Brothers — trumpeter Randy and saxophonist Michael. “You could hear a lot of bebop in their playing … even though they were blowing over funk grooves.”

He went on to work with them in various collaborations. Randy Brecker plays on “Trip.”

Stern went on the road first with Blood, Sweat and Tears. His breakthrough came when he was hired in 1980 for Miles Davis’ band that marked the legend’s return to the scene. He played for Davis for several years (he was replaced by John Scofield, who headlined the Orchard fest last year), and then returned for a second shorter stint in 1985.

He enjoyed working with Davis. The band had no keyboard player though the leader would occasionally “bash” on the piano. Stern questioned it. Davis said not to worry he’d hear it. Stern appeared on the comeback albums “We Want Miles” and “Star People.”

By the time Stern left he had a good sense of where he wanted to take his own music. Essentially he wanted to make as much music as possible.

These days even with the flood of free music it’s still possible to make a living at it, he said.

“I feel kind of blessed that I get to do what I do,” the guitarist said. “Even if I wasn’t making money doing it I’d still be playing.”

The importance of having music in his life has been re-enforced after his accident. “The healing power of music — the world needs as much of that as possible.”

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