Compelling is the word. If you are in search of a one word description of Leni Stern
's new record, it is indeed the word. Then again, that aptly applies to her body of work over the past thirty-five years. Dance
is as much a metaphor as it is a movement. Life, in its never ending struggle to survive and move forward, relies on the merriment of dance to inspire us, push us through the difficult times, and in turn enjoy the ride along the way. There is a dense inner-core to Stern's music that is plush with emotion, ripe with musicality, and adroitly maneuvers through cultural boundaries like a machete cutting through the densest African forest. While she has shared her voice within a host of creative platforms, Dance
once again captures a fresh approach, allowing us to step inside these melodic and rhythmic original compositions.
Over the past fifteen years Stern has made Africa her home away from home. Her total immersion into African culture, language and music has uniquely integrated with her already deep comprehension and mastery of jazz and fusion. This artist and her craft have boldly continued to regenerate through new discoveries and an ever flourishing maturation. Stern, as all female instrumentalists, has battled the "Oh, you must be the singer" perception throughout her passionately driven career. Gender once again proves no match for Stern's empowered axe wielding skills. She is equally comfortable plucking a n'goni (a small African guitar like instrument), which yields the strains of traditional African music. That vibe is strengthened and wisely enriched by her more than decade long trio mates, percussionist Elhadji Alioune Faye
and bassist Mamadou Ba
. In 2020 the trio mushroomed to a quartet with the addition of Argentinian pianist Leo Genovese
. While there are similarities to be found in African and South American beats, there are even more differences. Merging the two with the distinctive sound of jazz has raised the bar even higher for Stern.
Stern is an instrumentalist first and foremost. However, she is also a remarkable vocalist. While her voice is lovingly angelic and soothing, you hear the truth just as she sees it and feels it. Singing with the same confidence and concern in both English and an African language, Stern uses her voice as an instrument, as well as through lyrics. Moreover it's her phrasing that makes every story take on its own identity and beauty. The eight song set begins with a prayer entitled "Ya Rakhman/Prayer" that was conceived by Stern and Faye. It opens with Stern's serene voice and luscious octave drawing us into a mood of tranquility. The soon penetrating guitar and percussive drive become an unexpected lift, before a taste of n'goni, bass and keyboard sounds are all revealed to awaiting ears. "Aljouma/Friday" introduces happy and melodic rhythms, including Genovese's glistening piano solo. The Stern composition evolves into intelligent guitar lines interfacing with Genovese. The elegant piece combines jazz and classical with a carefree feel. Stern freely expresses herself with her voice as an instrument, before rolling it naturally into her guitar. With a strong percussive feel throughout, Stern and Genovese masterfully share the space. An intuitive composer, Stern dazzled with her strongest composition right out of the gate. She set out to capture you earlythen never let go. In the past she has written all, or mostly all, of her own material. This time there was more of a shared narrative, with each member of the quartet contributing a song.
A Ba instrumental is next, and not surprisingly glows with the tapestry of Ba's inventive solo bass moving against the African beats of Faye's various percussion. Stern enters "Maba" with a zestful guitar solo that elevates Ba and Faye and leads into a full voice conclusion. The Genovese penned "Kani/Hot Pepper" is a scintillating instrumental that revels in highly rhythmic percussion, led by Faye. Stern takes the highly melodic piece out for a spin on her guitar that is as fun as it is ambitious. Genovese follows suit with his own vibrant keyboarding. The record was now in constant motion and kicks up another notchnow Stern playing with the contagious spirit of "Khale/Children." Genovese and Ba join in on the fun that was enhanced by the dynamic rhythms of Faye. The uninhibited joy and exuberance of children is what Faye set out to capture with this composition. As his infectious grooves signifiy their pure heartbeats and the feeling of them running about gleefully, the Dance
party moves on.
A lyrical Stern then sings wantingly that "she wishes she could fly" like a "Kona/Bird." Accompanying herself with the delicate strings of her n'goni, she then tells the tale in African. The sure beauty of the n'goni is expanded by guest artist Harouna Samake. A well-known and highly respected musician from Mali, Samake solos with the grace of a bird in flight on a kamale n'goni. The beautifully melodic song was co-written by Stern and Samake. Next the ensemble respectively energizes a traditional African tune with powerfully paced percussion, which first Genovese takes for a ride, then ultimately Stern stretches on guitar with some impressive note selections. She takes full advantage of the rhythms presented and plays with heart and abandon.
Stern concludes with a tune that representative the adventurous spirit of all the musicians involved with this project. Treating us once again to the radiant tone of her voice, her n'goni, and the sweetly moving piano skills of Genovese, as well as with the never stop, continuous beat of her strapping rhythm section. "Fonio/Grain" just had to be a Stern composition. So clearly in touch with the necessary brush strokes to complete the canvas, and have everyone be a vital part as they had been from the beginning.
It has been long established that music is our universal language. Dance becomes the universally understood ensuing conversation. It evolves into part of our rich dialogue, that perpetually grows, develops, and matures, thanks to caretaker artists like Leni Stern.
Ya Rakhman/Prayer; Aljouma/Friday; Maba; Kani/Hot Pepper; Khale/Children; Kono/Bird; Daouda
Haruna Samake: kamele n’goni.