Recognized as one of the finest electric guitarists of his generation, Mike Stern is well-versed in the jazz tradition fusion, hard rock, and blues. His style combines phrasing normally attributed to saxophonists, innovative chord voicings pioneered by Jim Hall, and the sonic approach of a rock musician and the soulful, emotive expression of a bluesman. All of these traits were on display on his debut solo effort, 1983's Neesh, from the Japanese Trio label in 1983. A decade later, his acclaimed Standards (And Other Songs), led to his being named Best Jazz Guitarist of the Year by readers and critics of Guitar Player magazine. The next year's Is What It Is and 1996's Between the Lines, both received Grammy Award nominations. 1997's Give and Take won him the Orville H. Gibson Award for Best Jazz Guitarist. Stern has placed ten albums on the jazz charts, and three more at contemporary jazz including the Grammy-nominated Big Neighborhood in 2009. That same year, Down Beat named him one of the 75 Greatest Guitarists of all time. Though best-known as an influential soloist, bandleader, and sideman, Stern is also a veteran collaborator. In 2008 he was featured as such on the Yellowjackets' Lifecycle; in 2014, he and guitarist Eric Johnson co-led the contemporary jazz chart-topper Eclectic; five years later he and Jeff Lorber shared billing for Eleven.
Stern was born on January 10, 1953, in Boston, Massachusetts, but grew up in Washington, D.C. before returning to Boston to study at the Berklee School of Music. Stern was only 22 when he joined Blood, Sweat & Tears, with whom he played for three years before signing on with Billy Cobham's jazz fusion outfit, which led to his big breakthrough: Miles Davis enlisted him as guitarist in 1981 for Davis' return from a five-year musical hiatus. He played and recorded with Davis until 1983, when he began touring with Jaco Pastorius, but he rejoined Davis in 1985. In the meantime, Stern had completed work on his 1983 solo album, Neesh, his debut as a bandleader. Again with Davis, Stern stayed on for just a year, after which he cycled through projects by David Sanborn and Steps Ahead while simultaneously recording his follow-up to Neesh, Upside Downside, which marked his first release for Atlantic Records' jazz division. Stern continued a steady string of releases for the label over the next few years while continuing to play with several other projects, including Michael Brecker and the reunited Brecker Brothers, eventually scoring his first Grammy nomination with the release of Is What It Is in 1994, then garnering another nomination for his 1996 follow-up, Between the Lines. He received his third Grammy nod for his 2001 release Voices, which was Stern's first recording with vocals -- albeit wordless vocalese; it also marked the end of his tenure with Atlantic. Stern issued These Times, his debut album for ESC in early 2004, and two years later, with a cast of impressive backing musicians (Richard Bona, Meshell Ndegeocello, Roy Hargrove, and Kim Thompson, among others), Who Let the Cats Out was released. In 2008, evidence of a dazzling show from that year's European tour was captured and released the next year on concert DVD New Morning: The Paris Concert. 2009 saw Stern earning yet another Grammy nomination for his 14th solo album, Big Neighborhood, which featured guest work from artists such as fellow gunslinger/guitarist Steve Vai and Medeski, Martin & Wood. He returned in 2012 with All Over the Place, working again with trusted producer Jim Beard. In 2014, Eclectic appeared, an ambitious collaboration with guitarist Eric Johnson featuring guest spots from Stern's wife Leni on vocals and singer/songwriter Christopher Cross. The album was recorded mostly live at Johnson's studio.
On July 3, 2016, Stern was hailing a cab to leave for a European tour. He tripped and fell over some construction debris hidden in the street, broke both arms and was taken to the hospital. He fractured both humerus bones and was left with significant nerve damage in his right hand, which prevented him from accomplishing even the simplest of tasks -- including holding onto a guitar pick. Following a surgery in which 11 screws were put into his arm, Stern emerged in late October with Chick Corea during the pianist's two-month residency at the Blue Note. The guitarist had to play seated while wearing a black glove outfitted with velcro attached to a velcro-fitted pick. In November, Stern hit the road for Europe, co-leading a band with drummer Dave Weckl.
Following a second surgery, he gained more control of his nerve-damaged hand by devising a scheme where he literally glued and taped his right-hand fingers to the pick. It strengthened his grip, and allowed him to regain his signature speed and technical precision. In January, he entered Long Island City's Spin Studio with a well-heeled crew of sidemen -- many of whom he had worked with since the '80s: keyboardist/producer Jim Beard, trumpeters Randy Brecker and Wallace Roney, saxophonists Bob Franceschini and Bill Evans, bassists Victor Wooten and Tom Kennedy, and drummers Weckl, Dennis Chambers, and Lenny White. The album was completed in March with the self-deprecating title Trip. His sense of humor was also reflected in the tracks "Screws" and "Scotch Tape and Glue." Trip was issued by Concord some 14 months after the accident in September 2017. A year later, the Yellowjackets co-founder Jimmy Haslip introduced Stern to Jeff Lorber. While neither had worked together previously, they were mutual admirers. After meeting and jamming, the pair decided on a collaboration that resulted in 2019's Eleven, issued by Concord Jazz.
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