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

1 comment:

  1. Too cool. Wish I could've been there cause I'm a big fan. On a whim I downloaded a few of his tunes a few years back and they've since become drive-time favorites. Thanks for posting this experience.