Artist Interview by: H. Allen Williams
August 2006 - A cat is out making some serious noise that has a career that spans three decades and a discography that includes more than a dozen eclectic and innovative recordings. Three-time GRAMMY nominee Mike Stern has established himself as one of the premier jazz cats and jazz-fusion guitarist and composer. Stern makes his Heads Up International debut with a new release fittingly entitled, Who Let The Cats Out?

JazzReview: What qualities in your personality have enabled you to achieve such success as musician?
Mike Stern: One thing for sure is I'm a stubborn kind of person. When I really want to learn something, I put my heart and soul into it until I get it--especially learning music, any kind of music, but especially jazz. And I use that term loosely because jazz is a lot of things to many different people. Nothing I've learned has come fast; math, history, or whatever. I just stay with it and learn it, especially with music. The shit just doesn't happen in a week, you know!

JazzReview: What about your qualities in regards to career or business?
Mike Stern: Well, I was just lucky! Just being in a certain space at a certain time, like getting the chance to play with Miles both musically and career wise was an amazing experience. After that, many people knew who I was and it just got me out there.

JazzReview: There was more to it than luck. You had to have the skill of many years of focused concentration of playing.
Mike Stern: Yeah! You have to have a certain amount of things together. You can't be in the right space and not be able to deal. I was glad that I had put in a whole lot of work to develop my potential. That's endless though, whatever you work on. You can do that forever, studying and refining your craft.

JazzReview: Exactly. Just as we even continue to work on the English language, speaking and learning new words to communicate with others.
Mike Stern: That is very true. I use that analogy all the time. Just as when you first learned a language; first you learned a word or a phrase. You know you can't communicate your heart right away. You have to learn the logistics of the language. That is very much the same as learning the language of music, and then after time, it becomes just immediate as any other language you are fluent in. Then after that, the sky's the limit!

JazzReview: Your music and playing always sounds like you are having fun. How have you continued that joy and freshness in your music for over three decades?
Mike Stern: That's good. You know I want that always. It happens naturally because I love to play music. And the more fluent you get at something, the more fun you have doing it. It just grows and builds from there. Depending on what kind of music you play, certain kinds of music calls for more vocabulary than others do. All of it (music) is good. One music is not better just because it is more involved. For me, whatever gets my heart, I dig! For me though, knowing more vocabulary and knowing more words makes the whole thing more fun.
There is something about time and getting into a groove, whether it is a swing thing or a funk groove, blues, or Motown. Getting into it does something to me, even physically, that I really dig. I am serious about music, but I want to have fun playing, and I want people to have fun listening! I am absolutely serious about the music. I put in a lot of hours doing it, but I enjoy it. I never let it get so precious that it becomes to serious. I'm glad you noticed that and certainly I did not try to hide that with my new record, Who Let The Cats Out?

JazzReview: What a great title. Can you tell us how you came up with it and how it applies to the music on the CD?
Mike Stern: Those are my cats! They are always running around and doing stuff, and sometimes they get out. We have four of them; we really got some cool pictures.

JazzReview: The CD cover is great with the cat playing with the toggle switch on the guitar.
Mike Stern: Yeah, they mess around with my guitars all the time. I'll be walking around the house and hear braaaaang! The title is just for fun It reflects the music and the playing on it, so it is just having fun.

JazzReview: What was the concept behind Who Let The Cats Out?
Mike Stern: I wanted it to be lose, a gut level concept with different players playing on the tunes I had written with them in mind. For instances, Meshell Ndegeocello (bass), I had played with her at the 55 bar in New York City, and it was smokin'. So I wrote a piece with her in mind, which is what happened with all the music on the CD.

Mike Stern

JazzReview: Please tell us about the other players on the CD.
Mike Stern: Oh, just amazing players! Some of them I have toured with a lot, like Dave Weckl and Kim Thompson are the two drummers on the date. Kim Thompson is a young great player that I have been touring with off and on for the last couple of years, although now, she has the gig with Beyoncй--so that will be on hold for a while. Dave Weckl, of course, he is an amazing player. There is a long list of players!
I tour with most of the players like, Bob Franceschini (sax), Chris Minh Doky (bass) and Richard Bona (bass and vocals). Anthony Jackson (bass) played on my album Odds or Evens and we are doing more gigs together. Everybody else just sat in, like Roy Hargrove (trumpet). I played once with him in Europe and he sounded great. Bob Malach (sax) is on there and Victor Wooten (bass). I've been playing with him for years. And, of course, Jim Beard produced and played piano and synths. Gregoire Maret (harmonica) use to come sit in at the 55 Bar in New York City all the time, even before he started playing with Pat Metheny.

JazzReview: The 55 Bar has been a great gig for you over the years.
Mike Stern: The 55 Bar is a really cool place. There are so many musicians going through New York City and it gives me a chance to play and check out a lot of different players. It's a great gig, a lot of fun!

JazzReview: The players you use are from all around the world. How do their influences affect your compositions and playing?
Mike Stern: Richard Bona has especially. I met him ten years ago in Europe while he was living in Paris. Although he is originally from Cameron, Africa, he credits me for inspiring him to move to New York City.
Mike Stern

He is an amazing musician; this cat can play really good drums, guitar and incredible percussion playing. He sings his ass off and writes his ass off. He really is a natural musician. He has definitely influenced me and helped push me to do vocals on my album Voices, which I wrote some of the material with him in mind. Voices was probably the first album I did with a "world" sound to it, and he was surely a big part of that. Especially when he sings, he really brings a "world" sound to the tunes.
The biggest influence in regards to world music though, would be my wife, Leni. The way she writes and the way she plays her music and what she plays around the house is a huge influence on me. She is studying Indian music right now and it is just beautiful. She is amazing. She listens to a lot of world music, which rubs off on me.

JazzReview: Did you write all the material on Who Let The Cats Out? with each individual musician in mind?
Mike Stern: Absolutely! When I found out who was going to play on the album, I wrote the tunes with them in mind.

JazzReview: It sounds that way because you have twelve different musicians on the CD, which could sound unnatural, but the CD flows and sounds like one unit throughout.
Mike Stern: That was the challenge; you got it exactly! Getting all the different variety of material and various players to have an overall flow and cohesive sense was a challenge. Jim Beard was really important in that. He said that it was my tunes. I would be playing on all the tracks so that would be the common glue that would keep everything together. Jim is just an amazing producer. He knows how to do things that really gets your music out there. He's great. All the music is going down live and that helps.

JazzReview: Right, there is that special magic that happens live with the spontaneous interaction of musicians that just can't be produced when playing with tracks.
Mike Stern: Yeah, there is just no way to get that energy when playing to tracks. It's just not for me. I like it to go down live.

Mike Stern

JazzReview: How do balance-composing songs that develop and tell a story while at the same time allowing space and freedom for the improvising musician?
Mike Stern: I always try to keep it in balance, especially on this record; I wanted to have space for both.

JazzReview: There is a nice flow of the two with interludes between solos, and nice transitions of various styles and multiple sections all contained with in one piece.
Mike Stern: It is very important to arrange the material so that it flows and breaths.

JazzReview: You left lots of room for blowing though!
Mike Stern: Oh yeah! Everyone gets a chance to stretch out and play. I love that kind of thing.

JazzReview: An emotional high point on the CD is the ballad, "We're With You." Can you discus the emotions and thoughts behind the piece?
Mike Stern: That piece is really about the phenomenon that happens when something goes wrong in someone's life, or a disaster happens and people come around them to help and support them. In my heart, I dedicated it to two specific incidences and people. One is Michael Brecker. He is really fighting a serious illness. He is recording by the way, and he is such a strong individual. So many people have rallied to help and continue to support him to fight this illness. It is amazing the support he has received.
The second is Bob Franceschini. His wife unexpectedly passed away while we were on tour. The whole band really rallied around him and supported him. The soul of that moment when people come together to support one anther really got me and that is what the piece is about.

JazzReview: Can you walk us through your compositional process on "Good Question?"
Mike Stern: It is a head for rhythm changes, which I had an idea for a bass line on and I knew Richard would sound great doing it. It has an Island/African feel to it, which is nice. This is also the first time Richard has scatted and played at the same time. He has only done that live, so this is the first recording with him doing that on it. It is really just a vehicle to blow on!

JazzReview: How does this release represent an evolution in your music compared to the 2004 release, These Times?
Mike Stern: I wanted an album that I could just play on, which would document my playing evolution. Compositionally, it puts all of it together with the writing and use of voices on These Times and Voices, combined with more space for just blowing. Writing wise, I am getting to the point quicker and keeping it simplerон so the musicians can do their thing.

JazzReview: You have played with so many great players in your career. Is their a common way of thinking that runs though all great musicians?
Mike Stern: They all play from the heart. Joe Henderson told me he liked Stevie Ray Vaughn because Stevie played from the heart and you could hear it. They're open to so many different kinds of music, but everything they play, they put their heart and soul in it!

Mike also has a new DVD out, Mike Stern - Live New Morning, The Paris Concert.