“I’m Going to Kick Your Ass if This Guy Can’t Play”
Mike Stern and Bill Evans, United by Miles and More
The Mike Stern & Bill Evans Band with bassist Darryl Jones and drummer Dennis Chambers appear at Birdland June 14th through June 18th, 2016. Tix here.
Mike Stern is part of a generation of jazz guitarists including John Abercrombie and John Scofield who combined the stylistic influences of Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery with the electric sounds of rock and roll. Beginning in 1976 as a member of Blood, Sweat & Tears, Stern went on to tour and record with Billy Cobham, Miles Davis, Jaco Pastorius, and the Brecker Brothers before launching a solo career encompassing 16 recordings as a leader, six GRAMMY® nominations, and numerous collaborations combining rock-fusion firepower with sophisticated jazz harmonies. In 1981 Stern teamed with saxophonist Bill Evans in Miles Davis’s band. Evans has since worked with an array of artists including Willie Nelson, Herbie Hancock, and The Allman Brothers, as well as contemporary jam bands, Medeski Martin and Wood, and Umphrey’s McGee. Rounding out the quartet are the virtuoso rhythm team of drummer Dennis Chambers (John Scofield, George Duke, Brecker Brothers, Santana, Parliament/Funkadelic) and bassist Darryl Jones (Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Madonna, Eric Clapton, Sting, The Rolling Stones). *Another version of the band with drummer Steve Smith and bassist Tom Kennedy appeared in March 2015. (Ed.)
Birdland: When and how did you two meet and start performing together?
Bill Evans: I met Mike in 1979 at a very small club in Boston when he was doing a gig with Dave Liebman.
Mike Stern: It was a little club in Boston called Michaels. I loved Bill’s playing right away, he’s amazing. He’s a great writer too.
BE: Then in February or March of 1980, Dave Liebman recommended me to Miles Davis. To make a long story short… I was recording with Miles in the studio that Spring and Summer, 1980, and hanging out with him pretty much every day. Miles mentioned that he wanted to bring in another guitar player.
MS: Bill told me there might be a possibility of getting into Miles’s band.
BE: I told Miles I knew a guy named Mike Stern. He said, “can he play?” “Yeah,” I said, “he can play.” We called Mike to fly down to New York that day from Boston where he lived but then Miles changed his mind all of a sudden.
MS: Then (1981) Bill brought Miles to the Bottom Line in NYC where I was playing with Billy Cobham.
BE: I asked Miles, “do you want to come down to the club with me and hear that guitar player I mentioned to you before, Mike Stern?” Miles said, “yeah, let’s go,” then laughed and said, “I’m going to kick your ass if this guy can’t play.”
MS: Miles liked my playing and hired me. It was Bill that recommended me and got me the gig.
BE: But then we didn’t play much together again for almost 26 years, with a Mike Mainieri “Steps Ahead” Allstar tour of Europe in 2007 with bassist Richard Bona and drummer Steve Smith.
BL: That’s a fairly PG-rated Miles story. Any other interesting anecdotes from that time?
BE: That’s a big question. You have to understand I was around Miles for over four years, pretty much every day. Other musicians didn’t have that kind of relationship. After he called me I was sort of the guy helping him back into playing music again. But Miles had a great sense of humor, style, etc.. He was a lot of fun to be around. He thing he always told me was to be myself with my music and my life. He said “no one can do YOU better than YOU.” Amen to that. Otherwise you’ll have to wait until I write a book someday!
BL: What can we expect during your week at Birdland?
BE: We’ll play some of Mike’s songs as well as some of mine. As well as the entire Frank Sinatra catalogue (just kidding!).
BL: What is your history with Steve Smith and Tom Kennedy?
MS: I played with Steve Smith in Boston when I was at Berklee. I’ve played with him over the years with Steps Ahead (with Mike Brecker, Mike Mainieri, and Darryl Jones) and also on Steve’s first record for Columbia. He is an incredible musician. I’ve also been playing with Tom Kennedy for years. He’s one of my favorite bass players.
BE: Steve Smith and Tommy Kennedy are two of the best musicians I’ve ever met. These guys are incredible. I met Tommy when he was a kid living in St. Louis and I was going to college with his brother. Tommy is truly a freak on his instrument. No one should be able to play what he can. And Steve, coming from the rock band Journey, way back when, is one of the great drummers. What can I say?
MS: This kind of rhythm section is so much fun to play with. I’m really looking forward to it.
BE: This is a very diverse band that can seriously play rock, hardcore jazz, and funk. With musicians of this level, everyone can pretty much play anything, the interaction is intense and fun. There’s humor, emotion, intensity. And ever since Mike decided to play music full time and leave the circus, there has been no turning back for him. Occasionally he still wears his red plastic nose and clown suit, and that always gets a couple of laughs from the crowd. Ha!
BL: Mike, we find a lot of hard core guitar fans coming to your shows at Birdland. It’s a good thing, of course, but guitar is clearly their entrée into jazz. It seems to be true of drum fans as well. Have you noticed this phenomenon?
MS: I’m sure there will be a lot of guitar players and drummers but I’m also sure there will be a lot of sax players! Music lovers in general. Now that I’m singing just a little bit, of course there will be thousands of singers showing up!
BL: There is, though, a virtuosic or pyrotechnic element to this band. In a good way, in as much as the music demands it…
BE: Well, Mike has an incredible amount of facility on his instrument and that’s not easy. Most guitar players can’t even come close to his technique. But Mike can still make great music as well, which is of course the key to the whole thing. Mike is a jazz guitarist which says a lot. It takes years to get to that level, learning jazz. That’s where we all come from, but then he expanded into all kinds of music, which makes him the player he is now. His tunes are really challenging and fun to play. Mike and I have a real blast trading lines, doing a lot of sax and guitar dialogue live on stage. The audience really responds to that. They know that they’re getting something truly in-the-moment. We love that as much as the audience does. Of course, we all know guitar is still not as great an instrument as the saxophone, so Mike is dealing with that all the time, knowing that guitar is truly inferior… Ha!
MS: But seriously, I guarantee we are going to play our hearts out. This particular band has played together quite a bit and it’s always special.
BE: Everyone in this band are great friends. In fact, next time Mike sits in with the local circus, we’re all going down together to sit in the front row and cheer. Ha!
BL: When not performing, what else are you doing?
MS: Reading, swimming (I swim every day). I also practice a lot. I try to keep learning. Music is endless. The more you know the less you know. It’s a wonderful endless journey. There’s always new stuff to learn.
BE: Watercolor painting, I love doing that. I love to fish in the summer. I’m a golf fanatic. I juice vegetables everyday and stay healthy. I watch nature shows, The Golf Channel, and I like dark chocolate. Gluten free is over rated, or maybe not. The jury is still out. I have a beautiful wife named Rebecca who I married six years ago. She says being with me is never boring. Haha! I’m recording a new CD with my Soulgrass band and guest singers: Gregg Allman, Warren Haynes, Anders Osborne, JJ Grey, Josh Dion… all my favorite singers. And I’m really good at shoveling my roof when we get a foot of snow!
MS: We hope to see everybody at the gig.
BE: See you guys at the show.