by chris mchale

published by Riviting Riffs

Down three steps from steamy Christopher Street, in the 55 Bar, Mike Stern has just wrapped a set. He stands behind the bar hawking his latest CD, ‘All Over The Place.’ This joint is not a fancy uptown concert hall, with hoi poloi seats and feathered patrons. Jazz can be like that these days, a sort of refined swing to the evening, a rarified attempt at legitimacy, as if white tie acceptance is some kind of required validation. 


Mike Stern doesn’t really care about any of that. 


He lives inside the music. Wherever he plugs in and creates, that’s where the music is, and finding it, shaping is his life long practice.


“I love music, there’s just so many ways to go with music. There’s so many different things to get into and study. I check out a lot of horn players, a lot of saxophone players and trumpet players, and Miles who I played with, I check his stuff out. I write it out, I transcribe stuff like that. Piano players, like McCoy Tyner and Herbie, I try to get some of those ideas on the guitar.”


His latest CD release, ‘All Over The Place’ takes this wide-ranging passion across many borders, genres, ideas, riffs, beats, colors, melodies, harmonies, to forge a global fusion all boiled down and presented with rare precision.


“This record has a whole bunch of different, wonderful musicians on it and that’s why I called it ‘All Over The Place.’ The record has a lot of different styles that are inspired by these different musicians. Richard Bona, people like that, they inspire me to write in their genre, like Richard could sing this. And Esperanza Spalding, you know I love her voice and her bass playing and I thought if I could write a piece on this record that she could sing, she’s a real soprano and she sings so beautifully, real high, the range of the piece could really show what she can do.”


In the most basic sense Mike Stern plays the guitar. Plays it, practices it, but never perfects it, because perfection is not only out of reach, it’s not even the goal.


“You can arrange everything to a certain point and you can rehearse it to a certain point, but it doesn’t all have to be protooled to death and everything lined up perfectly. It’s got to have some rough edges and I think it’s important to get everybody live on the record, which is what I was able to do in this case, everybody played live in the studio on every session. That’s cool.”


In our everything tidy and compressed interweb world, a record like ‘All Over The Place’ is a warm bath for the ears. Real, sweaty, punchy, riffy, actual melodies, ideas, challenges and pure, unadulterated chops, like there’s a sign over the live room door in the recording studio that reads, If Ye Can’t Play, Do Not Enter Here.


“Everybody’s sending these files, everything sounds so digital, it sounds too clean. My favorite records are like the old records, like the Stones and the Who and Jimi Hendrix, the 60’s jazz records, there was a lot of raw in that stuff. Especially, if it’s instrumental music, if it’s too clean, I don’t know, to me it loses something. It’s amazing to do it live like I did it here, because you come up with different ideas on the spot, things you wouldn’t have come up with otherwise.”


Mike looks like a pure bred rock star, but his guitar on ‘All Over The Place’ can be smooth, tight, snaking down Groove Boulevard with a gorgeous, almost vocal style to his playing.


“With Miles there was an edge, but I’ve always liked a kind of a vocal sound, like a horn. I use a little chorus and two amps to try and make it sound a little more vocal, like Jimi Hendrix, because he sang, and the blues guys I grew up with, BB King, Albert King, they bent the strings and sounded very vocal and I’ve always been a fan of that style. I want the guitar to sound more legato and more singing like. I want air in the sound.”


The vocal nuance is right there on the tunes ‘Light,’ the blues infused ‘Halfway Home,’ featuring a popping bass solo from Victor Wooten, and the beautiful ballad, ‘As Far As We Know.’ 


The ballad is a surprise, a nylon-stringed acoustic piece, subtle and evocative, set against some pulsating pads, with an almost European film scoring and melodic setting, a gentle love match of Stern’s guitar and Esperanza Spalding’s voice. The tune suggest an emerging depth to Stern’s musicality. 


Mike Stern has always defined his style from a singular perspective. There’s a quality to his playing that’s unique, almost gentle, and shaded in the most refined way, and ‘All Over The Place’ provides an unfolding conversation between Mike and his guests.


Against a soft, sure touch on the tune ‘AJ,’ the bass pulse of super-funk maestro Anthony Jackson works a solid foil for Stern’s guitar. Chris Potter’s agitated sax joins in, as does Mike’s wife Leni on rhythm guitar. Later Leni returns on the worldbeat ‘Out Of The Blue,’ playing the n'goni, an entrancing energetic tune rising wholecloth out of some distant azure sea. 


Listening to this record is like taking a mystery bus tour to the four corners of the jazz world, surprising, unexpected and outright fun.


In Bar 55, the line of fans getting Mike to sign the cover of ‘All Over The Place,’ stretches back to the door. He’s smiling, open, chatting, wearing his heart on his sleeve, answering every question. This is Mike’s kind of place and Mike’s kind of crowd, casual, intense, committed and honest. From a small bar in Greenwich Village to the cornucopia of grooves on ‘All Over The Place,‘ Mike Stern has one idea.


“Whatever you’re playing, wherever the music takes you, the guiding force to me is play your heart out.”