Jazz-rock guitarist Mike Stern speaks the language of the heart

Mike Stern. Picture: Max Crace
Mike Stern. Picture: Max Crace
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The New York-based jazz-rock guitarist Mike Stern is anticipating, with characteristically laid-back relish, his collaboration with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra later this month.

“If you can’t have fun playing music, you’re in trouble,” he says. “I’m always having fun, and with a great band it becomes a party.”

Stern, widely regarded as one of the greatest electric guitarists of his generation, had just played with the big band on one number, on their American Adventure album of two years ago, when the orchestra went into New York’s Avatar Studios to record with various US jazz luminaries. For a taste of the sort of highly combustible chemistry the meeting of Scots big band and American guitarist is likely to generate, just listen to them on that album, tearing their way through Marcus Miller’s Splatch, Stern’s spacey, split-stereo guitar sound howling its way over the urgently pulsating band.

“That one time I played with them, I just thought, ‘Wow!’ So I’m going to have a ball,” Stern laughs. “I’m going to have my little notebook out, trying to steal as much as I possibly can.”

At 63, Stern’s experience would fill a library of notebooks, charting a career path that had him playing with jazz-rockers Blood, Sweat and Tears at the age of 22, through periods with Billy Cobham, Miles Davis, Jaco Pastorius, the Brecker brothers and many others. “I’ve been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and I got a chance to learn from all these guys,” he says.

He is a musician who favours collaboration, with albums such as Big Neighbourhood and All Over the Place featuring heavy rockers such as Steve Vai as well as more mainstream jazzers like Randy Brecker and Kenny Garrett and distinctive bassist-singers Esperanza Spalding and Richard Bona. His current album, Eclectic, is a duo with blues-rock guitarist Eric Johnson, and they sound as if they’re having the time of their lives, not least on a cover of the old Jimi Hendrix blues, Red House, a nod to one of Stern’s great influences.

“To me, music is the language of the heart and the main thing is to play your heart out. If that’s happening, I’m cool with it, in any kind of music.”

Ask whether there’s a conscious line between jazz and rock he crosses in such genre-blurring partnerships and he replies: “Not really. I just do what I do. I came through music school with Bill Frisell and John Schofield and Pat Metheny and a whole bunch of others, and basically guitar players tend to be more eclectic in their tastes. For me, the guitar is the instrument that I play and it kind of leads me to other places.”

The SNJO collaboration will see them perform commissioned arrangements (from the likes of Bob Mintzer, Fred Keezer and Florian Ross) of Stern’s own tunes, such as his hard-kicking Tumble Home and Chromazone, the ballad What Might have Been and his mellifluous Wishing Well. They’ll also reprise Splatch. “It’s a fun tune to play, but really fun to play with them,” says Stern warmly. “But I’d be happy with anything they wanted to play, just sitting in with them. It’s going to be a ball.”

• Mike Stern and the SNJO play the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on 26 February; the Gardyne Theatre, Dundee on the 27th; and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow, on the 28th. See www.snjo.co.uk and www.mikestern.org