Eric Johnson & Mike Stern
Eric Johnson Bio:
One of the most outstanding instrumentalists in rock over the past 30 years, Texas guitar slinger and GRAMMY® Award winner Eric Johnson was already a legend before he recorded his first album. By the early ‘80s, such celebrated guitarists as ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, the Dixie Dregs’ Steve Morse and famed session man and former Steely Dan member Jeff “Skunk” Baxter began singing the praises of this skinny kid from Austin with the mind-melting chops. Comparisons were made to such guitar heroes as Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix while his ‘70s fusion band Electromagnets was being hailed as “the Mahavishnu Orchestra of Texas.” And though the band’s 1975 self-titled regionally-distributed debut album was long out out of print, the legend of Eric Johnson spread via cassettes passed around within guitar circles. With the release of his highly-anticipated 1986 solo debut, Tones, the underground guitar legend finally emerged onto the scene fully-formed. And with the release of his eagerly-awaited follow up album, 1990’s platinum-selling Ah Via Musicom, which contained the GRAMMY® Award-winning crossover hit single “Cliffs of Dover,” Johnson became a bona fide international guitar phenomenon.
The New Age Music Guide once opined that “Eric Johnson plays guitar the way Michelangelo painted ceilings: with a colorful vibrancy that’s more real than life” while Rolling Stone included him in their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of the 21st century. A dynamic singer as well as an incredibly gifted guitarist and prolific songwriter, Johnson has been featured on the cover of countless guitar magazines around the world while also racking up critical accolades and mega-sales along the way. He has been a featured performer at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival and appeared alongside fellow six-stringers Steve Vai and Joe Satriani on their celebrated ‘G3’ tours of 1997 and 2008. He has also been a fixture on the Experience Hendrix Tour, performing the music of his main guitar inspiration across the country. This fall, Johnson will participate in his seventh Experience Hendrix Tour overall.
Johnson has 10 albums as a leader under his belt to date, the latest being Europe Live, recorded on tour in April 2013 with his working trio of bassist Chris Maresh and drummer Wayne Salzmann II. For his latest recording, he joins forces with renowned jazz guitarist and former Miles Davis sideman Mike Stern on their first-ever studio collaboration, Eclectic, which Eric calls “one of my favorite double guitar situations that I’ve ever done.” A collection of originals, including a hard-hitting Electromagnets tune from the mid ‘70s, “Dry Ice,” and a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s scorching blues, “Red House,” this 2014 Heads Up/Concord release is a scintillating six-string summit that should leave guitar aficionado slack-jawed in disbelief. The seeds for this extraordinary six-string summit meeting were planted in 2009 when Johnson played on two tracks from Stern’s GRAMMY® -nominated album Big Neighborhood. As Stern recalls, “At that session, which we also did down in Austin, I remember us saying, ‘One of these days we should do a record together,’ but I never thought that would happen.” Five years later, the two modern day guitar heroes have put together a powerhouse program (with bassist Chris Maresh and drummer Anton Fig) that celebrates their mutual love of Jimi Hendrix, Wes Montgomery, Albert King, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and others.
The son of an Austin physician, Johnson was born in 1954 and began studying piano at age five. He took up guitar at age 11 after Beatlemania swept across the States. He progressed quickly from Beatles and Ventures songs to Wes Montgomery, Jimi Hendrix and Django Reinhardt tunes. His first experience with a semi-professional group came at age 15 when he joined Mariani, a four-piece rock ensemble headed by drummer Vince Mariani. “We were pretty innovative for the time,” Eric recalls. It was during this period that Johnson was invited to jam with local guitar hero Johnny Winter. “When I heard Eric,” Johnny later recalled, “he was only 16, and I remember wishing that I could have played like that at that age.”
By the time Eric reached his late teens, he was so advanced that it was difficult for him to find musicians around Austin who could keep up. After graduating from Holy Cross High School, he briefly attended the University of Texas, then traveled with his family to Africa before relocating briefly to New York. In early 1974, he joined Austin’s first notable fusion band, the Electromagnets and the following year played on the group’s self-titled debut. Released regionally by EGM, the album failed to attract a major-label deal. “My favorite tracks on that are ‘Crusades,’ ‘Blackhole,’ ‘Motion,’ and ‘Dry Ice,’” Eric stated in his December 1982 Guitar Player feature. “As a cult underground album, it did well, but it never took off. A lot of the aspects of my playing on that album are still with me.” After a four-year struggle for success, the Magnets (by then they had shortened the name) decided to call it quits. Soon after the breakup, Eric unveiled the Eric Johnson Group with Bill Maddox on drums and Kyle Brock on bass. The trio recorded an album-length master tape in 1978, Seven Worlds (which remained on the shelf for 20 years before finally being released). Johnson subsequently became an in-demand sideman, appearing on recordings by Cat Stevens, Carole King, Rodney Crowell and fellow Texan and longtime friend GRAMMY®-winning singer-songwriter Christopher Cross.
In 1986, the guitarist released his majestic 1986 debut, Tones, which earned him his first GRAMMY® nomination for the track “Zap.” Following the success of 1990’s platinum-selling Ah Via Musicom, which included his GRAMMY®-winning crossover hit, “Cliffs of Dover,” Johnson toured extensively for three years, including a short, memorable tour with B.B. King in 1993. He returned to the studio to record Venus Isle, which was released in 1996 and garnered him another GRAMMY® nomination. After the release of Seven Worlds in 1998, Johnson issued a limited-release collection of demos, outtakes and live tracks, Souvenir, in 2002. He followed in 2005 with the studio album, Bloom, which yielded a fifth GRAMMY® nomination. 2009 saw the release of Live and Beyond by Alien Love Child, an improvisational trio Johnson had formed in the mid ‘90s during the recording of Venus Isle. A document of a night at Antone’s in Austin with this wildly improvisational trio featuring bassist Chris Maresh and former Electromagnets drummer Bill Maddox, Live and Beyond included the GRAMMY®-nominated track “Rain,” which was written by Maresh.
Johnson’s 2010 album, Up Close, was a return to his roots and included the tunes “Austin” and “Texas” and also featured guest appearances from guitarists Steve Miller, Sonny Landreth, Jonny Lang and Jimmie Vaughan. “I wanted to bare myself a little further and show myself more,” he said of that outing. “As you evolve as a person and artist, you reach forks in the road where you look at what it is you really want in life and to bring out in yourself and thereby affect other people. What’s most important to me is to grow as a person, and because of that, I want my music to also grow and have more of a profound meaning and impact.” He followed in April 2014 with Europe Live (a document of his 2013 trio tour with bassist Maresh and drummer Wayne Salzmann which included stops in Amsterdam, Bochum, Germany and Paris). On his latest, Eclectic, recorded at his studio in Austin with fellow guitar star Mike Stern, Johnson digs deep and makes a major impact. For music aficionados, this collaboration is a match made in heaven.
Mike Stern Bio:
One of the most esteemed electric guitarists of his generation, Mike Stern has distinguished himself over a four-decade career that has encompassed musical partnerships with Blood, Sweat & Tears, Billy Cobham, Miles Davis, Jaco Pastorius, the Brecker Brothers and Joe Henderson, as well as 16 recordings as a leader (six of which were nominated for GRAMMY® Awards). An electrifying soloist whose blistering chops combine rock-fusion firepower with sophisticated jazz harmonies and his inherently bluesy string bending prowess, Stern has the ability to instantly elevate the proceedings on any gig or session he plays by channeling the spirits of his own personal guitar heroes Jimi Hendrix, Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall and Albert King.
Born in Boston on January 10, 1953, Stern grew up in Washington, DC, then returned to Boston to study at the Berklee College of Music. He got his first big break with Blood, Sweat & Tears in 1976 at age 23. After touring and recording for two years with the popular rock band he was recruited by drummer Billy Cobham for a stint in his powerhouse fusion band Glass Menagerie from 1979 to early 1981. Stern was subsequently recruited by Miles Davis and was part of the jazz legend’s celebrated comeback band (with bassist Marcus Miller, drummer Al Foster, percussionist Mino Cinelu and saxophonist Bill Evans), making his public debut with Miles on June 27, 1981 at the KIX nightclub in Boston, a performance documented on the 1982 live album We Want Miles. During his three-year period with Miles, Stern appeared on two other recordings with the jazz maestro – 1981’s Man with the Horn and 1983’s Star People. He later toured with Jaco Pastorius’ Word of Mouth Band from 1983 through 1985 then returned to Miles’ lineup for a second tour of duty that lasted close to a year.
In 1985, Stern made his recording debut as a leader with Neesh on the Japanese Trio label. A year later, he made his Stateside debut as a leader on Atlantic Records with Upside Downside, which featured such celebrated colleagues as alto saxophonist David Sanborn, tenor saxophonist Bob Berg, bassists Mark Egan, Jeff Andrews and Jaco Pastorius, keyboardist Mitch Forman and drummers Dave Weckl and Steve Jordan. Over the next two years, Stern was a member of Michael Brecker’s potent quintet, appearing on the tenor titan’s Don’t Try This At Home.
In the summer of 1986, Stern took to the road with David Sanborn and later joined an electrified edition of Steps Ahead, which featured Mike Mainieri on midi vibes, Michael Brecker on the Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI), Darryl Jones on electric bass and Steve Smith on drums. That powerhouse fusion outfit was documented on Live in Tokyo 1986. Stern’s second Atlantic album, 1988’s Time In Place, featured drummer Peter Erskine, keyboardists Jim Beard and Don Grolnick, bassist Jeff Andrews and percussionist Don Alias. He followed in 1989 with Jigsaw, which included Mike’s menacing ode to Miles, “Chief,” and in 1991 with Odds Or Evens, the latter featuring the working group that Stern co-led with saxophonist Bob Berg and which also featured drummer Dennis Chambers and bassist Lincoln Goines. In 1992, Stern joined Michael and Randy Brecker in a reunited Brecker Brothers Band, appearing on that year’s acclaimed release, Return of the Brecker Brothers. Stern’s own 1993 release on Atlantic, Standards (And Other Songs), earned him the pick of Best Jazz Guitarist of the Year by the readers and critics of Guitar Player magazine. He followed that up with two hard hitting releases, 1994’s Is What It Is and 1996’s Between The Lines, both of which scored GRAMMY® nominations.
In 1997, Stern recorded Give And Take with bassist John Patitucci, drummer Jack DeJohnette, percussionist Don Alias and special guests Michael Brecker and David Sanborn. Their freewheeling covers of Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo,” John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” Cole Porter’s “I Love You” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Who Knows” helped Stern earn the Orville W. Gibson Award for Best Jazz Guitarist that year. His ninth release for Atlantic, 1999’s Play, was a six-string summit featuring his friends and colleagues Bill Frisell and John Scofield. Then in 2001, Stern made his first foray into vocal music on the GRAMMY®-nominated Voices, which featured key contributions from singers Richard Bona, Arto Tuncboyaciyan and Elisabeth Kontomanou. After 15 years with Atlantic, Stern shifted to ESC for the 2004 release of These Times, an eclectic set that included guest appearances by some high-profile session players, including bassist Richard Bona, saxophonist Kenny Garrett and banjoist Bela Fleck.
Stern joined Heads Up International, a division of Concord Music Group, with the August 2006 release of Who Let the Cats Out? Included on the guest roster of this GRAMMY®-nominated recording are bassist-singer Richard Bona, bassists Anthony Jackson, Meshell Ndegeocello, Chris Minh Doky and Victor Wooten, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, saxophonists Bob Franceschini and Bob Malach, drummers Dave Weckl and Kim Thompson, harmonica virtuoso Gregoire Maret and keyboardist/producer Jim Beard. At the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal in June 2007, Stern was honored with the Miles Davis Award, which was created to recognize internationally acclaimed jazz artists whose body of work has contributed significantly to the renewal of the genre. Previous recipients include Keith Jarrett, Wayne Shorter, Michael Brecker and Charlie Haden. Stern was also the artist in residence at the festival that summer of 2007, joining the renowned Yellowjackets for some electrifying live performances. Their kinetic chemistry was later documented on the 2008 studio collaboration Lifecycle, which was nominated for a GRAMMY® for Best Contemporary Jazz Album.
A frequent world traveler, Stern took his group to Europe, Asia and elsewhere throughout much of 2008 – an ambitious itinerary that included a memorable one-nighter at the New Morning club in Paris with saxophonist Bob Franceschini, bassist Tom Kennedy and drummer Dave Weckl. This electrifying show in front of a capacity-plus crowd in May 2008 was captured on film for the DVD New Morning: The Paris Concert, released in March 2009. In February 2009, in the first in a series of articles to celebrate DownBeat’s 75th anniversary, Stern was named to the venerable jazz magazine’s list of 75 Great Guitarists. The list spotlights many all-time great jazz, blues and beyond guitarists and shows the wide-ranging influence that the guitar has had on music since it made its way into jazz in the 1920s.
In August 2009, Stern released his ambitious, GRAMMY®-nominated Big Neighborhood, which featured a long list of talented guests, including guitarists Steve Vai and Eric Johnson, bassist-vocalists Esperanza Spalding and Richard Bona, jamband godfathers Medeski Martin & Wood, drummers Dave Weckl, Terri Lyne Carrington, Cindy Blackman Santana and Lionel Cordew, bassists Chris Minh Doky and Lincoln Goines, saxophonists Bob Franceschini and Bob Malach, trumpeter Randy Brecker and keyboardist/producer Jim Beard.
Stern was presented with Guitar Player magazine’s Certified Legend Award on January 21, 2012. This was given to him at the Muriel Anderson’s All-Star Guitar night where he performed with Lee Ritenour. Past GP Legends include Les Paul, Duane Eddy, Dick Dale, Larry Carlton, and Tommy Emmanuel. In June of that year, Stern released All Over the Place, which featured trumpeter Randy Brecker, saxophonists Kenny Garrett, Chris Potter, Bob Franceschini and Bob Malach, drummers Dave Weckl, Keith Carlock, Lionel Cordew, Al Foster, Kim Thompson, keyboardist/producer Jim Beard and Mike’s wife, guitarist-vocalist Leni Stern. A delegation of high-caliber electric and acoustic bass players, including Esperanza Spalding, Richard Bona, Victor Wooten, Anthony Jackson, Dave Holland, Tom Kennedy, Will Lee and Victor Bailey rounded out the all-star cast.
On his latest recording, Eclectic, Stern goes toe-to-toe with Texas guitar slinger Eric Johnson in a scintillating, six-string summit meeting that is manna for guitar aficionados. And as the title suggests, these two modern day guitar heroes cut a wide stylistic swath on eleven originals while showcasing their mutual love of Hendrix on the iconic blues, “Red House.” Unlike his previous recording, All Over the Place, which featured a sprawling cast of characters, Eclectic was recorded in three days at Johnson’s studio in Austin with a core group of the two celebrated guitarists, bassist Chris Maresh and drummer Anton Fig (with only a few selected guests, including Mike’s wife Leni Stern on n’goni and vocals and singer-songwriter Christopher Cross on backing vocals). “My records lately have been with a whole bunch of different people, but this was really cool to just have one group and barely add any overdubs,” says Stern. “It was really kind of live, which I have always liked to do. We just set up and played. And because it was Eric’s studio, no one was looking at the clock. So the record really went down fast, but we had plenty of time to do it.”