Righteous Jazz: A Conversation with Jeff Lorber and Mike Stern

The two jazz fusion giants come together as co-leaders on Eleven

Mike Stern and Jeff Lorber

Nominally a jazz fusion keyboardist and composer, Jeff Lorber is known for a particular kind of highly melodic and accessible jazz.

Detractors might cal lit “smooth jazz,” a term that – unsurprisingly – Lorber dislikes. But there’s no denying the wide appeal of Lober’s music; his debut, 1977’s The Jeff Lorber Fusion, reached #30 on Billboard‘s Jazz Albums chart, and his 10th album, 2017’s Prototype reached #6 on that chart, earning a Grammy (Best contemporary Instrumental Album) as well.

Electric guitarist Mike Stern comes from a markedly different background. The jazz musician got his high-profile start at age 22 when he joined Blood Sweat & Tears. He’d go on to a varied career that included work with Jaco Pastorius, the Brecker Brothers and – most significantly – Miles Davis. His style moves seamlessly between pop, blues, post-bop jazz and fusion; often he combines them all at once.

While he has more than 17 albums to his credit, Stern had never worked with – nor even met – Lorber until producer and former Yellowjackets bassist Jimmy Haslip suggested the two get together and make an album.

The product of that union is Eleven (the title a reference to one of Christopher Guest’s most notable scenes in the mockumentary This is Spinal Tap). I spoke with both musicians just ahead of the album’s release and supporting tour.

 

[To Mike Stern] Jeff Lorber is an artist who’s known for a particular sort of pop-leaning kind of jazz aesthetic. Did that have any affect on the kind of pieces that you brought to the project?

Mike Stern: Not really, no. I like some of the stuff he does, of course, and I wasn’t that aware of him, except I heard him from time to time. He always sounded like he could play. Jimmy put us together, and I just went for it. I had some tunes that I thought he could play well, and he played them great. They’re maybe a little bit more edgy than some of his stuff, but his stuff’s got some nice, cool, kind of funky kind of grooves on this record. It was a good balance.

 

[To Jeff Lorber] A few songs into the first track, “Righteous,” well before Mike’s guitar part comes in, I immediately found myself saying in a mock announcer’s tone, “Coming up, your local forecast.” How do you feel about the fact that your signature sound is so closely and readily associated with the background music on The Weather Channel?

Jeff Lorber: Honestly, I don’t watch The Weather Channel. So I’m not really that familiar with it. But I’m totally in favor of anything that helps get my music out there so people can hear it. If it’s used in a background music thing, that’s not the greatest, but hopefully my music is engaging enough that people don’t want to put it in the background.

 

AUDIO: Jeff Lorber Fusion Soft Space (1977)

The idea of so-called smooth jazz is basically a radio format, not necessarily a musical style. I think my style is melodic. So it’s got that going for it, and that makes it appealing to the average person, I think. But also, I think musicians would like the stuff that I write because it does have some bebop vocabulary and some hip chords and hip rhythms, too.

 

[To Mike Stern] What are some of the common threads that tie together all of your work?

Mike: There’s always some blues always in there. So, probably the blues … and whatever it is, it’s  sincere. Pretty much all of the stuff that I’ve written, I really try to make it from the heart. I try to get the emotion behind it right. And whatever inspired the tune in the first place, I try to keep it happening.

A lot of them start off in one place and get stronger or go to another place dynamically, because I like tunes with some kind of dynamics that open up and stretch out a little bit. Emotionally, too. I like that.

Mike Stern & Jeff Lorber Fusion Eleven, Concord 2019

[To Jeff Lorber] Eleven is primarily an instrumental album. When you’re writing an instrumental piece, is it “about” something or is it purely a musical expression?

Jeff: Well, it’s about something in that it starts out, there’s some kind of an idea that I’m excited about. And it could just be some kind of combination of a rhythm and some chord changes, a beat or just some concept that I want to explore.

And then, after that, the development comes where you play melodies on top of it. It’s kind of the same thing as improvising. When you look for a melody, you crystallize an idea that is memorable, the ultimate melody that you can find for that chord progression. Then, you use the craft that you’ve developed to kind of come up with other contrasting sections and chord progressions and you can build the form of the song. I think it’s very much influenced by classical song form, classical structure in the way that you have an initial idea and then you have other ideas that contrast that and then you come back to your initial idea that’s basically what the piece is about. And you use your talents to keep it interesting and exciting and to develop it in a way that feels satisfying.

And in our case, I think it’s really important to develop it in a way that’s going to be fun to play in front of people and exciting to improvise on and to make a good vehicle for improvisation, for live playing and repeated listening, hopefully.

 

[To Mike Stern] Do the solos and the melodic lines that you play on this album come forth spontaneously based on the foundation of the tune, or are they something that you work out meticulously?

Mike: No, no. The solos are all instant. I mean, it’s just improvising. I know the vibe of the tune, and you just kind of let that go and trust your instinct with improvising. Of course the tune has a lot to do with how you construct your solo, but you don’t really think about it. To me, it’s kind of like a spontaneous, impulsive kind of thing. And hopefully the impulses and the spontaneity is good. And the experience of doing it leads you to be able to play the right vibe.

 

[To Jeff Lorber] What is the most significant difference between your approach to your instrument today as compared to the way you played at or near the beginning of your career?

Jeff: It’s funny you should mention that because I’ve just been listening a bunch lately to this recording I made in 1980 when I was doing some gigs with Joe Farrell at a club in Seattle called Parnell’s. And I think back then I was playing a lot more straight ahead jazz, more swing kind of jazz. And I was probably better at it. I kinda miss that a little bit.

But I think I’ve just accumulated so much knowledge about what I think a good solo is, what I think a good melody is, what kind of music I like and what I don’t like. And it just gives me more confidence that whenever I come into any musical situation, I know what I’m doing and have better judgment skills and a lot more ways to approach things. Early on, I was just sort of powering through it. I was young and I didn’t know as much as I know now. So, I just kind of did the best I could without as much experience. But luckily, some of that stuff turned out okay.

And then, you get older. I think the experience that I have gives me more tools to work with and more wisdom about what’s good and what’s bad. The main thing that we’re looking for is music that lasts, that really has lasting value and people want to keep listening to. That’s what we’re trying to do.

 

VIDEO: Mike Stern performs “Red House” 2018

[To Mike Stern] In the press kit from the album, there’s a quote for you saying that for live dates you might sing on some Hendrix tunes. And since it’s in print, I couldn’t tell if you were kidding or not.

Mike: No, I’m serious. I’m singing “Red House” all the time with my gigs, and I’ve got to learn a couple more tunes, but I’d love to do that. I did it on an Eric Johnson record, actually, first. We did “Red House” on a record called Eclectic. And we did a tour together. I do it all the time now since then.

 

[To Jeff Lorber] What character do you think producer Jimmy Haslip brought to the Eleven project that it might not have otherwise had?

Jimmy and I have known each other for a long time. We’ve been working together on and off, and we were even working together when he was in The Yellowjackets. He’s actually been suggesting for a while that I should do something with Mike, and we finally got around to proposing it to him and he was up for it. And to me, it’s really a challenge to work with a guy at that level who is playing a style that’s a little different than mine, but one that I definitely enjoy listening to and I appreciate. And so, I’m just glad to have that chance to kind of be tested in that way and see what I can do to hang in there and contribute and make great music with one of my colleagues who I really respect. I enjoy his musicality so much.

[Recording] is just a long process of development; it’s kind of like building a house. You put the foundation down, and then you add different things, and then eventually you get to the very end of it and you’re just dealing with details, which would be kind of like putting door knobs on or painting it or something like that. And those details are important too.

We had to negotiate a few things between Mike and us, where we were trying to come up with the best way to deal with different aspects of the record. The song “Tell Me,” for example, turned out to be one of the more difficult songs on the record, because we changed it up. We started out with more of a bossa nova feel and we tried to give it more of a pop, kind of straight ahead drum beat. And eventually, what ended up happening was it became very simple. We did a lot of additional production to it, and then we got rid of all that and brought it back to something that was very simple and pure and honest, which I think we both felt good about.

But that’s sort of the way it works. You go on a little journey together and just figure these things out together until it gets to the end that everybody’s happy with.

 

[To Mike Stern] When you present this material to a live audience, are you just going to use the recordings as a reference point to kind of take off?

Mike: That’s what I always do. I mean, usually when you do recordings, it’s a different thing from live. Generally, the live stuff is just more energetic and it’s got more twists and turns and longer stretching out solos and stuff like that. We’ll see. I’m certainly going to push it in that direction, and I think Jeff will, too.

 

AUDIO: Eleven by Mike Stern-Jeff Lorber Fusion (full album)

Bill Kopp

Bill Kopp is a music journalist, author, historian, collector, musician. His book Reinventing Pink Floyd was published in 2018. Follow him on Twitter @the_musoscribe

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