Mike Stern: Upside Downside

mike stern

Atlantic Records, released summer 1986

Bought: HMV Megastore, Oxford Street, 1988?


There’s no telling how a jazz musician will react to a bad review, whether from a critic or fellow player. Some, like Miles Davis, take a – how shall we put it – stoic view, either refusing to read any press or choosing his writer friends very carefully (Leonard Feather, Quincy Troupe).

But for every naysayer, there’s an aggressor; drum master Tony Williams laid into jazz scribe Stanley Crouch for his less-than-flattering comments on Miles’ electric-era music, while Weather Report famously took Downbeat magazine to task for its one-star slagging of 1978 classic Mr Gone.

Though guitarist Mike Stern had studied at the famous Berklee music school in the mid-‘70s and then landed a top gig with jazz/pop supergroup Blood Sweat & Tears, he wasn’t prepared for bandmate Jaco Pastorius’s succinct review of his guitar playing after a dodgy run through Chick Corea’s ‘Spain’ on tour with BS&T one night – ‘Stern, you know that sh*t wasn’t happening at all! You’ve got to learn faster tempos!’

Jaco and Mike, 1980

Jaco and Mike, 1980

To his great credit, Stern listened to his friend, learnt the tune note by note and in the process became one of the greatest players of his generation. His slick bebop lines played with a ‘rock’ sound were quite new when he came of age playing with Billy Cobham’s band.

Miles was also listening closely while he was in the early stages of putting together his ‘comeback’ band in early 1981. The story goes that he appeared in the front row of The Bottom Line club in New York City and poached Stern during a break, apparently even calling Cobham off the bandstand in the middle of a tune to issue his intentions!

Stern was then summoned to the Columbia Records studio to record the electrifying half-time strut ‘Fat Time’ (Miles’s nickname for Stern) in one take. The track appeared on the Man With The Horn album and Stern was then invited to go out on the road with Miles.

My dad took me to see Miles at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1982, my first proper gig. I’m sad to say that I don’t recall much about it apart from Miles’s white suit and someone shouting: ‘Turn the trumpet up!’

Dave Liebman, Miles and Mike Stern, 1981. Photo by Julie Coryell

Dave Liebman, Miles and Mike Stern, 1981. Photo by Julie Coryell

Critics were harsh on Stern, not believing that a chubby, jeans-wearing, long-haired guy playing a white Strat with a fuzzbox could play ‘jazz’, but with hindsight he did a brilliant job of holding down the harmony and delivering powerful, surprising solos in the keyboard-less quintet.

But the demons that haunted some of his early career wouldn’t go away. Stern recently said, ‘I played about two gigs in my life between the ages of 12 and 32 when I was sober’.

Miles even got John Scofield into the band as second guitarist to cover for his increasingly unreliable secret weapon. Stern eventually missed a flight and got the boot, but after a successful spell in rehab returned to play with old friend Michael Brecker and Mike Mainieri’s fusion supergroup Steps Ahead.

Stern also put together a solo record deal with Atlantic Records and began working on Upside Downside in early 1986 with his late friend and fellow shit-hot guitarist Hiram Bullock in the producer’s chair.

The album is a great excuse for Stern to play the hell out his guitar in a variety of idioms. The uptempo tracks are blessed with typically fiery solos while the ballads beautifully demonstrate Stern’s lyrical side, his Telecaster screaming emotively above Dave Weckl’s subtle drumming and Mark Egan’s springy bass.

Jaco completists will enjoy one of his very last recorded contributions on the raucous ‘Mood Swings’ while saxophonist David Sanborn’s playing on ‘Goodbye Again’ is spine-tingling. But mainly the album is a must for any lover of the guitar. His sound is a little more fluid and widescreen than on recent albums and there’s no-one quite like Stern at the top of his game, a fusion of Charlie Parker and Roy Buchanan.

Mike made two excellent follow-up albums later in the ’80s, Time In Place and Jigsaw, both produced by the fine guitarist Steve Khan. For me, this was Stern’s best era, when his raunchy playing was closer to blues and rock than the lighter Methenyesque jazz and World music vibes of recent times. I also saw him live at the Town and Country Club in 1989, a memorable gig featuring the mind-blowing Dennis Chambers on drums.

Further reading: ‘The Extraordinary And Tragic Life Of Jaco Pastorius’ by Bill Milkowski


9 thoughts on “Mike Stern: Upside Downside

    • Cheers Leon. ‘Jigsaw’ is a beauty! Especially the title track, some classic Dennis Chambers on that. I was just thinking how influenced Hiram B and Mike Stern were by each other – they clearly loved each other’s playing. Would love to have heard them playing together in Miles’s band…


  1. Thanks Rich. Stern did some fantastic stuff in the ’80s before his solo career started, particularly with Miles but also with Steps Ahead and Jaco, worth checking out. The Billy Cobham stuff hasn’t aged so well. I will definitely seek out the new Eric Johnson duo album, he’s another fantastic player with an instantly recognisable sound. I didn’t see that partnership coming! Am I right in saying they’ve just toured the States together?


    • I had forgotten that Stern played with Steps Ahead. I have a couple of their albums, but I prefer the lineup when they were known as Steps and Michael Brecker played sax instead of EWI. Not sure if Stern & Johnson toured the US, but that would have been a great show. I’ve seen Johnson a couple of times, including an amazing show at the 400-capacity Bottom Line in NYC on the Ah Via Musicom tour. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more jaw-dropping guitar player.


      • Know what you mean, Rich. The early Steps were great and that stuff has probably dated a bit better than the later albums like ‘Modern Times’ and ‘Magnetic’ (which I still love though – more my era!). I was just listening to their version of Weather Report’s ‘Young And Fine’ which I didn’t know they had covered, I think it’s on their ‘Smokin’ In The Pit’ album. It’s got Steve Gadd on drums rather than Pete Erskine. I don’t think Stern ever recorded with them, he just toured in the 1986 version of the band.

        Johnson is amazing and really original – he plays this lick in the psychedelic opening of ‘Cliffs Of Dover’ which is just incredible and seems different to every other guitar player’s ‘concept’… I’ve analysed it over and over, trying to make sense of it. It’s at 0:16 on the Youtube album version if you’re interested…


      • I think one of my drum teachers recommended Steps to me, but it wasn’t until a couple of years later that I found Smokin’ In The Pit on CD. Before that I only knew the mid-’80s version of Steps Ahead which is good but the thin production and proliferation of synthetic sounds kept me from fully embracing it. I was already a huge fan of ’70s fusion like RTF, Tony Williams Lifetime, Mahavishnu Orchestra, etc that their ’80s successors sounded a little weak in comparison. Of course I’m talking about the production and not the musicianship.

        I’ll listen to Cliffs Of Dover later to see if I hear what you’re talking about.


  2. I would love to have seen Hiram Bullock and Mike Stern play together. Bullock was such a feel player, it was definitely not what he played, but how he played it. My favourite solo of his was this version of ‘Smile’ with David Sanborn and Marcus Miller. http://youtu.be/OZBsXbKKsDA . He really knew how to build a solo!


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