One might surmise that Mike Stern titled his new album “Trip” to signify his lifelong musical journey, which included stints with Miles Davis, Jaco Pastorius and Steps Ahead as well as leading his own bands. You would be wrong.
On July 3, 2016, the day Stern was to leave for a European tour, he tripped over hidden construction debris while hailing a cab in New York City. He broke both his arms and of course the tour was canceled.
These injuries would be devastating for anyone. But for a musician it could be career-ending. Stern made a personal commitment to do whatever he had to do in order to continue to play music. And his road to performing and recording again has been nothing short of incredible.
After a few surgeries plus a lot of perseverance and ingenuity, Stern was back on stage. In January, only 6 months after the accident, he was recording “Trip,” his 17th release under his own name. Remarkably, Stern is at the top of his game. Although his hand isn’t back to 100 percent and he is scheduled for more surgery, you wouldn’t know by listening to the album.
In a telephone interview from his home in New York, Stern discussed the recovery process, the new album and why it is so important to him to continue to play music.
“There was such traumatic nerve damage in my right hand that I didn’t know if I was ever going to play again,” said Stern. “Even with glue I couldn’t hold a pick, no matter how I taped it on. I tried a thumb pick. I tried everything possible.”
But Stern wasn’t willing to give up.
“I sure love to play. I’m not going to give this up without a fight. I’m going to be playing till the bitter end. I’m going to really fight like crazy to keep this happening.
“I finally found a great doctor… he’s a phenomenal hand and arm specialist. It’s my right hand that has the nerve damage. Because of him I can hold a pick. I have to use some glue. That was my invention.”
Stern wanted to perform as part of Chick Corea’s Miles Davis tribute at the Blue Note in New York last October. The band included other Davis alumni including bassist Marcus Miller and saxophonist Kenny Garrett, as well as trumpeter Wallace Roney and drummer Brian Blade.
“It was a really cool thing and something I really wanted to do and it was two-and-a-half months after the accident,” said Stern. “I used a compression glove, put a little Velcro and tape on the pick. And it kinda worked but not great.”
Since that first outing Stern has improved upon the method.
“I found a different way of playing with this glue on the pick, which is less than ideal, but it’s certainly better than what it was.”
Stern had initially planned to record last year and had much of the material written prior to the accident. A recording session that was planned with Corea, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Dave Weckl had to be scrapped because of the accident.
“So that was a drag. But then I got Bill Evans on (the song they planned to record) and he’s playing his a** off on it. He’s such a great tenor player.”
The album features a star-studded lineup including Jim Beard (keyboards), bassists Tom Kennedy and Victor Wooten; Evans, Roney and Bob Franceschini on tenor sax; and drummers Weckl, Dennis Chambers and Lenny White, as well as other special guests.
Stern is excited about the album, which features a variety of music. He intentionally did not make the music simpler to accommodate his injury.
“It’s a lot of different stuff. I generally like to do that. I have a lot of variety that I like to write. Some of it is almost more world music and some of it is funk. And some of it’s more straight ahead. It’s all stuff that I love,” said Stern.
“The songs were already written but I named the song titles after the accident. Like ‘Screws.’ That can mean a lot of different things. ‘Trip’ can mean a lot of things to different people. But for me it’s got a specific meaning. Like ‘Screws’ – I had to have 11 screws in my arm, some of which have been taken out and more are coming out.”
Another example is “Scotch Tape and Glue,” which were used to secure a pick to his fingers.
The most important thing is that Stern is happy and confident in his abilities.
“I’m my own worst critic and I have to kind of get out of the way so I tape myself. I said ‘let me see what’s really going on.’ So I started listening back to tapes… and I was pleasantly surprised, to say the least. There’s little tiny things that if you really listen that I would know but that nobody else would know.”
He added: “I think the main thing is just to be able to play well enough so that (I) feel the joy of the playing and you can get the emotion across to other people. Because music is the language of the heart and the heart is what matters the most.”
Stern is also happy to be able to tour again.
“The band is really special because it’s with Dennis Chambers, who’s a phenomenal drummer and played with Santana for 15 years, and I’ve been playing with him off and on for 30 years. (Trumpeter) Randy Brecker [with whom Stern also has a long relationship]… he’s from that neck of the woods [Cheltenham] and he’s amazing, so whenever we can we get together. And Tom Kennedy is a phenomenal bass player. He’s more of an upright player than he is an electric player but his electric playing is ridiculously great.”
The show at Ardmore will include some selections from “Trip,” other material from throughout Stern’s career and maybe a few surprises.