5 Essential Mike Stern Albums

Mike Stern Albums

Photo: ArtBrom / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Our 5 Essential Mike Stern Albums takes a look at some of the finest records Mike Stern has released during his spectacular career. Mike Stern first appeared on the jazz scene pretty much starting at the top. After a three year stint with Blood Sweat & Tears, Mike Stern found himself playing with Miles Davis. For any young jazz musician, the chance to play with one of the most important jazz artists of all time in Miles Davis is something that almost seems beyond reach. Not for Mike Stern. His talent was incredibly obvious early on. Mike Stern played with Miles Davis from 1981 to 1983. In 1984, Mike Stern toured with Jaco Pastorius.  A year later in 1985, Mike Stern was back working with Miles Davis again,

Mike Stern released his first major label solo album with Atlantic Records in 1986 entitled Upside Downside. Mike Stern had previously recorded an album entitled Neesh in 1983, but Upside Downside is really considered his debut album. And what an album it was. (more on that later) From that point on, Mike Stern has continued to release solo albums on a pretty steady basis for the past thirty four years. While releasing his own solo albums, Mike Stern had formed a friendship with Bob Berg as they both appeared on each others albums and toured together as the Mike Stern / Bob Berg Band. It’s a shame that Bob Berg passed away so young. Bob Berg was another one in a million talent. Mike Stern and Bob Berg together on stage and in the studio generated an electricity fueled by passionate, intelligent, joyful playing that resonated deeply with all music fans.

Throughout his career, Mike Stern has also joined forces with other well known jazz artists both on stage and in the studio for extended lengths of time. Mike Stern joined up with Steps Ahead for a go and then became a member of Michael Brecker’s Quintent. Mike Stern was a busy man contributing his talents in many directions and collaborating with the world’s finest jazz musicians. In the early 1990s, Mike Stern joined The Brecker Brothers Band for two years during the legendary group’s reformation. In 2009, Mike Stern recorded an album with the Yellowjackets called Lifecycle. The 2000s and 2010s also saw Mike Stern recording duo albums with Eric Johnson and Jeff Lorber.

Mike Stern has released an amazing body of work that jazz fans and beyond have enjoyed for years. There are only a handful of artists that cause you to drop everything the day they release a new album. Mike Stern is one of them. While we highly recommend just about every Mike Stern album, we wanted to compose a list of albums that we believe are a great starting point for music fans just discovering the music of Mike Stern. The 5 Essential Mike Stern albums listed below have been placed in chronological order. We also picked albums that showcased different stylistic periods that Mike Stern went through. We love the albums Time in Place, Jigsaw, Odds or Evens, Is What It Is and Between the Lines but there all similar in style to Upside Downside. These are also unbelievable jazz fusion albums that all have been worn out on our turntable.

We hope you enjoy this 5 Essential Mike Stern albums list.

# 1 – Upside Donwnside

In 1986, Mike Stern released his Atlantic Record debut album entitled Upside Downside. The album featured six killer cuts. One of the highlight of the album was the album’s fourth track entitled “Mood Swings.” The track featured Mike Stern on guitar, Jaco Pastorius on bass, Bob Berg on sax, and Mitchel Forman on keyboards. Both Bob Berg and Mike Stern take groundbreaking solos that set the tone for many years of music the two would record together. Jaco Pastorius and Steve Jordan laid out a groove that only those two could nail. Mitchel Forman holds it all together with a set of chords that never gets in the way of the Gods in the band.

As I write this article, I am listening to the song right now and I am still blown away by this piece of music even though I have listened to it hundreds of times. This is the track that turned so many jazz fans onto Mike Stern thirty four years ago. We hope it does the same thing for those reading this article who are not familiar with Stern’s music. We have included it below.

Mike Stern’s debut album Upside Downside is split evenly between roaring jazz rock fusion pieces such as “Upside Downside,” “Mood Swings,” and “Scuffle” and slower tempo tracks such as “Little Shoes,” “Goodbye Again,” and “After You.” We hesitate to call the slower tempo tracks ballads because Mike Stern still tares it up on all of those tracks. The album also features musicians David Sanborn, Dave Weckel, Mark Egan and Jeff Andrews. This was a stunning debut album from Mike Stern. To this day, it still remains one of our favorite Mike Stern albums.

# 2 – Give And Take

After releasing a series of jazz albums that stayed close to the vest of Mike Stern’s rock meets jazz own unique fusion jazz style, Stern makes a u-turn back towards the sounds of traditional jazz  with this wonderful album entitled Give And Take. This was not Mike Stern’s first flirtation with tradition as he had released a standards album five years earlier in 1992 entitled Standards (and Other Songs) However, Standards (and Other Songs) was a laid back affair and stands as sort of an outlier in Stern’s catalog. This 1997 album titled Give And Take utilizes more of Stern’s fiery spirit in a traditional way backed by some of the heavy hitters of modern jazz.

Mike Stern’s 1997 Give And Take album featured Michael Brecker on tenor saxophone, David Sanborn on alto saxophone, John Patitucci on bass, Gil Goldstein on piano, Jack DeJohnette on drums and Don Alias on percussion.

# 3 – Play

Mike Stern’s 1999 Play album was an extravagant guitar feast that on paper looked amazing but on record was ten times that. Imagine a record in which Mike Stern duets on seven of the album’s ten tracks with John Scofield and Bill Frisell. Imagine that, and you have the great Atlantic Records Mile Stern album entitled Play. Other great musicians on the album included, Ben Perowsky and Dennis Chambers on drums, Lincoln Goines on bass, Bob Malach on saxophone and  Jim Beard on keyboards. This is the type of album in which you could play a hundred times and still hear new things every time you listen to it.

# 4 –Who Let the Cats Out?

By the time Mile Stern had released his amazing album Who Let The Cats Out, it seemed some critics may have been taking him for granted. Mike Stern had gotten so good, his music so deep, so well written and extraordinarily played, some just weren’t able to hear it. You don’t have to be a trained musician to enjoy what he was doing, but if you were, it blew you away even more. If you listen closely to his phrasing, his use of harmony and the way he fused the line between jazz and rock, Mike Stern had pushed beyond the limits of jazz or just music in general in very similar fashion as to what John Coltrane and Mile Davis had done during their careers. This is the album that serves as the pinnacle of Mike Stern’s creativity.

What fuels the album besides the brilliance of Mike Stern, is the all star cast of musicians Mike Stern put together for the album, The interplay between the musicians is so compelling on this one. The musicians on the Who Let The Cats Out record included Chris Minh Doky, Meshell Ndegeocello, Victor Wooten and Anthony Jackson on bass, Richard Bona on bass and vocals, Dave Weckl and Kim Thompson on drums, Roy Hargrove on trumpet, Bob Franceschini and Bob Malachon on tenor saxophone, Jim Beard on keyboards and Gregoire Maret on harmonica.

# 5 – Big Neighborhood

We close out our 5 Essential Mike Stern albums list with his great Big Neighborhood album. Never has an album been more appropriately titled as Mike Stern explores multiple styles of music led by a wide variety of guest musicians. Big Neighborhood actually employed more guest musicians than any other pervious Mike Stern album. The record included such renowned musicians as Steve Vai, Randy Brecker, John Medeski and Eric Johnson. Also appearing on the record were many of the musicians who performed and toured with Mike Stern over the years such as as Jim Beard, Bob Franceschini, Bob Malach, Richard Bona, Chris Minh Doky, Lincoln Goines, Esperanza Spalding and Chris Wood. Chris Wood. The drum chair was utilized by some pretty heavy hitter’s such as Cindy Blackman Santana, Terri Lyne Carrington, Lionel Cordew, Billy Martin and one of our favorite drummers of all time, Dave Weckel.

The Big Neighborhood album opened up with an electric killer title cut that featured Steve Vai. It was very interesting to hear Mike Stern and Steve Vai play on the same song. They both have such vast different styles. The song is very telling in many ways. In the end, its an extraordinary entertaining piece of music that stands as one of our favorite Mike Stern tracks of all time. Mike Stern follows that track with “6th Street.” A song that features Eric Johnson on guitar. This is another one of the highlights on the record. Stern must have really enjoyed his time playing with Eric Johnson because five years later the two released an entre album together entitled Eclectic.

If we had to recommend only one album to turn new fans on to Mike Stern it would be Big Neighborhood. It’s such an exciting album that defines just how brilliant a guitarist and composer Mike Stern is. The sound is spectacular and the playing by all the musicians is off the charts……..

More Mike Stern Albums (Complete Discography)

Many of these Mike Stern albums especially the Atlantic Records are getting harder to find. They are all incredible records and we recommend every single one of them.


Released in 1983

Time in Place 

Released in 1988


Released in 1989

Odds or Evens 

Released in 1991

Standards (and Other Songs) 

Released in 1992

Is What It Is 

Released in 1994

Between the Lines

Released in 1996


Released in 2001

These Times 

Released in 2004

Who Let the Cats Out? 

Released in 2006

Big Neighborhood 

Released in 2009

All Over the Place  

Released in 2012


with Eric Johnson

Released in 2014


Released in 2017


with Jeff Lorber

Released in 2019

Albums recorded with Bob Berg. Mike Stern composed many of the tracks on these albums,

Short Stories (1987)

Cycles  (1988)

In the Shadows (1990)

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