On July 3, 2016, the world changed forever for Mike Stern. The multiple Grammy-nominated guitarist, a former member of Miles Davis’ band during the early 1980s and subsequent member of Steps Ahead, Jaco Pastorius’ Word of Mouth and The Brecker Brothers, was hailing a cab outside his apartment in Manhattan when he tripped over some hidden construction debris left in the street. He broke both his arms in the fall and the cab he was hailing ended up taking him to the hospital. This horrific accident happened on the day he was supposed to leave town for a European tour, which was promptly cancelled. Not only did Stern fracture both humerus bones (the long bones that run from the shoulder to the elbow), he was left with significant nerve damage in his right hand that prevented him from doing the simplest tasks, including holding a pick. Following his initial surgery, Stern was back on scene in late October, guesting with Chick Corea in a celebration of Miles Davis’ music during Corea’s two-month residency at the Blue Note in Manhattan. For that gig, he had to play seated while wearing a black glove outfitted with velcro to help him hold onto his velcro-fitted pick. In November, Stern hit the road for a European tour, co-leading a band with longtime friend and collaborator, drummer Dave Weckl.
Following a second surgery, the guitarist gained more control of his nerve-damaged picking hand and subsequently devised a scheme where he literally glues his right-hand fingers to the pick, which strengthened his grip, allowing him to more fully realize his signature speed, precision and fluidity informed mainly by bebop and the blues. Feeling sufficiently fortified, Stern and his stellar crew of sidemen — many of whom go back with him to the ‘80s — went into Spin Studio in Long Island City between January and March of 2017 to record his 17th album as a leader. The guitarist’s sly, self-deprecating sense of humor comes across in the title of the album, Trip, as well as on individual tracks like “Screws” (he initially had 11 screws put into his arm following his first surgery) and “Scotch Tape and Glue” (his current method for holding onto the pick).
A powerhouse outing, Trip, set for release on September 8, 2017 via Heads Up, a division of Concord Music Group, features such longstanding colleagues as trumpeters Randy Brecker and Wallace Roney, saxophonists Bob Franceschini and Bill Evans, the latter a bandmate in Miles Davis’ ‘comeback band’ of 1981, bassists Victor Wooten and Tom Kennedy and drummers Dave Weckl, Dennis Chambers and Lenny White. Produced by pianist-keyboardist Jim Beard, Stern’s frequent producer going back to 1991’s Odds or Evens, Trip is a brilliant showcase of what the acclaimed guitarist does best — riffing on post-Miles funk-fusion (“Trip,” “Screws,” “Watchacallit”), urgent swingers (“Half Crazy,” “Scotch Tape and Glue,” “B Train”) and lyrical ballads (“Amelia,” “I Believe You”). His wife Leni Stern guests on two tracks, playing the n’goni (a three-stringed African instrument) on the buoyant “Amelia, which also features Gio Moratti on backup vocals, and the uplifting ballad “I Believe You.” Other performers on Trip include percussionists Arto Tuncboyaciyan and Elhadji Alioune Faye, Living Colour drummer Will Calhoun and bassists Teymur Phell and Edmond Gilmore, both of whom currently work with Stern on his regular Monday andWednesday night residency at the 55 Bar in the heart of Greenwich Village.
Says Stern of the whole arduous journey that led to this triumphant comeback album: “Sometimes you have some bad stuff that’ll happen to you, but you kind of get through it and you realize that everybody has this stuff — good trips and bad trips. But you just gotta keep trying, you gotta get up and keep going as soon as you can, which I was able to do. I had to figure out a way to play. I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t play music. If you really want something bad enough, sometimes you have to fight for it; you find a way to make it happen. And now I have friends who I trust who tell me that they wouldn’t have noticed any difference in my playing if I hadn’t told them what happened to me.”
Indeed. From his scorched-earth distortion laced licks on “Trip” and “Screws” to his fleet-fingered burn on the three swingers paced by Lenny White — the Rhythm Changes number “Half Crazy,” “Scotch Tape and Glue” (based on the changes to “On Green Dolphin Street”) and “B Train” (his quirky contrafact on “Take the A Train”), Stern’s celebrated chops are intact on Trip. Elsewhere on this all-star outing, he shows rare sensitivity on his tender nylon string acoustic ballad “Gone” and on “Emilia,” which marks his second appearance on record as a vocalist (his first was on the lyrical tune “Wishing Well” from Electric, his 2014 collaboration with fellow guitar hero Eric Johnson). “Singing is kind of second nature for me,” says Stern. “I sometimes sing the melody when I’m writing a tune. I’ll be playing chords on the guitar and I’ll start singing a melody and then write it down. I got the nerve to do it from that record I did with Eric Johnsonand I’m doing it more on the gig too. And it’s cool because I’ve always tried to get that more vocal sound on the electric guitar. So the two go hand-in-hand.”
Whether he’s throwing down some burning, high velocity lines on “Trip,” “Screws” or “Scotch Tape and Glue,” or conjuring up a more buoyant vibe, as on “Hope for That” or the uplifting “I Believe You,” Stern is definitely back on top of his game after months of struggle and uncertainty. And in typically humble fashion, he defers to his bandmates on this all-star session. “Everybody played their asses off on this record,” he says of Trip. “I was really happy with how it came out, because everybody just put so much love and energy into it. When I get to play with the caliber of musicians on this recording, I’m just glad to be part of the band.”