On his new album, Play, Herculean jazzbo guitarist Mike Stern drops his guard to banter with two of the other most exciting guitarists in jazz: Bill Frisell and John Scofield. The Grammy nominated Stern is renown for his blistering hard bop lines, extraordinary technique and passionate solos, and on Play he works his magic in bebop madness, straight-ahead blowouts, New Orleans second line jaunts and some weird ballads. Of course, the pairings with Frisell and Scofield provide ample meat for such explorations. "Outta Town" is a whirlwind jam climaxing in a devastating Scofield-Stern exchange. Bill Frisell's trademark sonic nightmares fill the eerie "Blue Tone" and the gentler "All Heart." "Frizz" finds the pair working it out in a cat-and-mouse jazz jungle. But some of the best tunes are all Stern, such as the time-stopping whirlwind "Link," and the funky New Orleans blaster, "Tipitinas."
As with previous albums like Give And Take and Standards (And Other Songs), Mike Stern shows that jazz needn't be all hushed tones and intellectual bravado. Scalding and sweet, Play is the sound of three guitarists ripping and roaring, no ties allowed.
Guitar.com: Play is a very natural sounding record.
Mike Stern: I felt like that was the way to go with it. The last record I did, Give And Take, was the same kind of thing. It was a little bit more straight-ahead. The sound is less produced. For that music it worked, and it worked this time too.
Guitar.com: Some of your earlier albums were more produced.
Stern: With some of those albums, the music needed it, but this record didn't. This is very live-sounding. And also, we'd been playing together a lot as a band with Dennis Chambers, Lincoln Goines, and Bobby Malach. Richie Morales, too; he really plays from the heart. And through the years, I've played a lot with John Scofield and Bill Frisell. We hooked up immediately. I wrote the tunes and we played them. We kept it simple. I went out to Seattle to get up with Bill, so I used my frequent flyer miles and took out Lincoln and Ben Perowsky and we recorded out there. All my previous albums have been done in New York, so that was fun. We rehearsed maybe a day and a half and then recorded.
Guitar.com: Why the guitar summit approach now?
Stern: I felt like that was something I had never done and I love the way those guys play. I have known these guys for years, Sco from Miles Davis and Billy, and I used to jam for hours when we lived in Boston. We just played through. We never said, "I solo here and you solo there." Those guys are fucking great.
Guitar.com: Did the Pat Metheny/Jim Hall album inspire you to get together with some different players?
Stern: I have not even heard that yet, but I knew about it. I am sure it's great. But Sco and Billy have played together a bunch, and two guitars together is a nice sound right away. And we have common ground. All of us on this CD have a history of playing together, so right away you get a natural thing that feels organic.
Guitar.com: At the end of "Outta Town" you and Sco trade eights. You don't hear that much on anyone's records anymore. Why is that?
Stern: It's a little bit chancey. Some people wanna keep it safe! (laughs). But I figured, what the hell, just go for it. And we didn't plan on doing that, it just happened. We were in the same room playing, so we looked at each other and it just jumped off like that.
Guitar.com: Many players change their approach from record to record, but you seem to have pursued a single-minded goal with your music. Are you trying to perfect a sound?
Stern: Yeah, I feel like the gear is just to enable you to get the emotion out in your playing. That is the most important thing. I've been going after more horn and piano ideas. Sometimes I write out Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane solos. I try to play some of that on the guitar, not to cop it verbatim, but to try to get that phrasing on the guitar. And I like piano players like Wynton Kelly and McCoy Tyner and Bill Evans. That is what I've been doing for a bunch years, what I do day in, day out when I am practicing. That is what I shed. I do some other stuff, a few classical pieces, but that is the core of it.
Guitar.com: What does your daily routine consist of?
Stern: Maybe I'll do some transcribing, and I'm trying to write more on a regular basis. It's harder to practice cause I am on the road lot now. On the road I do as much as possible.
Guitar.com: How does someone with as much technique as you have get any better?
Stern: There is so much shit to do, it feels like I don't know shit. The more you know, the more cans of new stuff there is to open.
Guitar.com: You don't crank the fuzz tone as often in your solos now.
Stern: I still do that, it gives it another gear. Some stuff I use as a trademark thing that seems to work for me. Just as long as it gets you to where you want to go musically and emotionally. But in terms of practicing, it seems like I haven't even scratched the surface. I get inspired constantly from other guitar players and other players. I am still pushing and finding new stuff. The more new stuff you check out, the more there is to learn. Just today, I was checking out Miles Davis' Live At The Plugged Nickel. It's a motherfucker! I wrote out some of Miles' solo on "If I Were A Bell." And they stretch!
Guitar.com: You have such a backlog of original material now, do you still play standards out on the road?
Stern: Sometimes. Maybe "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise" or "Giant Steps" or "Alone Together." On the tune, "Outta Town," the changes are the same as "Have You Met Miss Jones?" So it's written with Sco in mind, and I knew he would know the changes to a standard like that. Some of the lines in the head are a little Sco-ish. I had those guys in mind when I wrote some of this stuff. "Frizz" was for Frisell, it's got his style all over it in the head. It's like what Charlie Parker used to do so amazingly well, write heads over a standard and change the arrangement a little bit. But the blowing changes are familiar stuff. It's great to know a tune inside and out, then you can take it further.
Guitar.com: Where did you get that bizarre melody on "Tipitinas"?
Stern: I played a club in New Orleans with Jaco Pastorious once. Zigaboo Modeliste from the Meters sat in. We ended up playing more funk stuff, which is like that tune. It's got a little angular line over it melodically, with a second line feel.
Guitar.com: How did "Link" happen?
Stern: I sort of took that from a Cedar Walton tune called "Bolivia." But I changed the bassline. That happens a lot in composition, you take one little seed from one place and it inspires you. If that works and you get your own tune that is cool. It's also named for my bass player, Lincoln Goines.
Guitar.com: Did you know that Moby named his album Play as well?
Stern: Nah, I didn't know that. But we are worlds apart, I don't think it will affect anything. And my album is playful. There is trading and plenty of stuff, guys reacting to each other. It's got a fun vibe to it. It was like, boom!