Friday, May 14, 2010

Mike Stern

Jazz guitarist Mike Stern was in Washington D.C. recently, for some gigs at Blues Alley. Word traveled through the grapevine that he would be coming up to Westminster to do a clinic in the afternoon before the first night's show. I was among 20 or 30 people who were lucky enough to get the word and headed over to McDaniel College on a lovely spring day to learn from Mike.

Mike is a world-class player and has produced many albums of music labelled jazz, but really cover a very wide range of styles.  He has toured the world many times and plays with the best musicians. But it was not always so. Part of his clinic was simply telling his personal story. He came to jazz after growing up on rock and roll, and rhythm and blues. He got excited about jazz but had no particular talent for it and he found it extraordinarily difficult. It was sheer will power, driven by an all consuming passion, that drove him to overcome the many hurdles to becoming a great jazz musician. I explain this sort of thing to my students all the time, but still it was encouraging for me to hear it from Mike Stern.

During the clinic, he played some amazing extended improvisations on standard tunes, first "Autumn Leaves," then "Body and Soul." Like many other jazz players, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of his instrument and can access the most complex harmonic and melodic ideas off the top of his head. What sets him apart, and was plainly evident, was his ability to express his own character, thoughts and emotions through his playing. It's the holy grail of all of us who strive to be great improvisers: to know you can call up any technique you desire, but to let that all take a back seat to pure expressiveness. Mike Stern has the whole package, and it was a privilege to witness it up close and personal.

His solos were incredibly sophisticated, employing some concepts I try to teach my more advanced students, but going way beyond anything I could ever hope to achieve. It was great to hear someone who has mastered the art of creating musical phrases and turning them into motifs that develop and change as the solo continues; and having a sense of contour and trajectory to the phrases, and the solo as a whole.

Playing with rhythm is also something I stress, and Stern proved his mastery by playing with only a bass player for accompaniment, no drummer. His solos got pretty adventurous, yet his time was always absolutely perfect, and beyond that, he played with an incredible sense of jazz swing style rhythm.

To top it off, he was a very warm, generous and funny guy. He answered questions and did his best to provide useful information, but mainly I think he came to provide some inspiration, and I got a lot of that from his clinic.

Photos courtesy of Frank McCreary.

Learn more about Mike Stern at

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Five Gigs in Four Days

It happens once in a while: every different kind of gig I do gets scheduled for the same week. This time I did five very different gigs in four days between April 22 and April 25. Here's how it went down:

April 22, Thursday afternoon - Classical guitar for kids at Forest Park Library. Unexpected tons of fun! For details, see my previous post, Playing Music For The Kids.

April 23, Friday night - Solo acoustic and vocals at a large Baltimore area restaurant with a huge patio and covered outdoor bar. Lots of young adults drinking heavily, talking loudly, and only marginally interested in the live musician performing a few feet in front of them. Well, some people do stop and listen, and it's cool to see a few people getting into some Hendrix, Zeppelin and Beatles along with their more modern favorite singers like Dave Matthews and Jack Johnson. But overall, not much involvement with the music. Things have changed since I was young. Check my recent post, Spectrum Reunion, to get an idea of how important live music was to young people in the late 1970's when I was in my teens and early 20's. Nevertheless, I am grateful to this venue for supporting live music and maintaining their commitment to providing live entertainment seven nights a week.

April 24, Saturday day - Acoustic duo with Elena, afternoon wedding reception. I had never been asked to do acoustic music at a reception before, so I was a little concerned about how well it would work, but it turned out fine. Elena and I learned a few requests from the client, and drew on our experience playing in variety bands, and from there figured out what we could do acoustically. We covered everything from Stevie Wonder to Brad Paisley, from Nancy Sinatra to Sheryl Crow. It worked out nicely and we may have some new songs to add to our regular repertoire. Elena is a great talent and a total pro. She did her usual outstanding job, despite the fact that she was eight months pregnant at the time!

April 24, Saturday night - Hectic Red, nightclub gig. After the reception, I rushed home, re-packed the car and headed out to play a club date with Hectic Red, the classic rock band I've been with for over 22 years. The band still sounds tremendous after all this time and we are blessed with a great number of terrific fans and friends. We played a lot of Steely Dan, Yes, Rush, Beatles, Billy Joel, Genesis and so many other cool classic rock tunes you just don't hear bands do. Tremendous energy and good vibes were felt all around.

April 25, Sunday afternoon - solo guitar for a wedding ceremony and cocktails. Sunday morning I got up, put on the suit and tie and drove to a nearby historic mansion/restaurant for a wedding gig.
As I usually do when hired as a solo guitarist, I played classical music for the ceremony, including Pachelbel and Vivaldi for the processional and recessional.  The cocktail hour was much less typical. The client was very specific about wanting solo guitar versions of classic rock tunes, including the Beatles, lots of Led Zeppelin, and a special request for Duran Duran! It took some thought to get my head around the idea, but the more I worked on it, the more I liked it. And to be honest, I did bring a looping pedal, but only used it a couple of times to create overlaid parts.

By Sunday afternoon it was all over. Well, not quite, there was still a neighbor's birthday party to attend. But eventually I was back home relaxing and watching a movie with Mrs. Sherman. Life is good, but I'm glad every week is not like this one.

Pictures by Crystal, aka The Painting Queen. Be sure to read her blog entry about my week of musical adventures. She is my biggest supporter and fan, and she means the world to me. Well, she is Mrs. Sherman, after all.