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Leni Stern: A Special Spirit


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For the musicians, the pandemic has been a financial hardship. But you can also see it as an opportunity to come out of this flying. It's like a retreat right now. Everyone is practicing, learning, and getting better.
—Leni Stern
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Leni Stern and I spoke about the pandemic, and her experiences with such, during her many travels to Africa. Because this conversation was prior to the senseless murder on May 25th, that incident is not mentioned.

This wasn't my first dance with the incomparable Leni Stern so I knew what to expect. Always gracious, personable, and positive, as quick to laugh as she is to deliver sincerity with heartfelt prose. Our last "official" conversation, Leni Stern: Finally, the Fame Has Come, was just over two years ago, and is a goldmine of Leni's storytelling. With a new album due for release and a treasure trove of stories from her remarkable life, sit back and breathe in the special spirit of Leni Stern. I should, in all fairness, credit Dave Weckl with that sobriquet. Davey and I were talking one evening, prior to one of Leni's husband and guitar virtuoso Mike Stern's shows, about Leni's many talents as a musician and composer. That conversation quickly morphed into her one of a kind traits as a human being and as a humanitarian. He then genuinely referred to her as "a special spirit." I readily agreed, and those most appropriate words have been with me ever since.

All About Jazz: Hi Leni. So great to talk with you. How are you and Mike doing? I know that New York City has been hit hard by this pandemic.

Leni Stern: Yes, but we are doing well. How about you and Ronda? I hope that you are well.

AAJ: Thanks for asking. We are doing okay. It's a difficult adjustment for everyone.

LS: Yes, it is. Although I have a slight advantage, I suppose you would say. As you know, I have spent a lot of time in Africa and all over the world in third world countries. I was in Mali during the Ebola crisis. You have to be very mindful of air-born diseases. I have seen worse than this. I have learned how to disinfect things. When you travel a lot in Africa you sort of learn how to behave. I remember the first few times I came back from Africa I was dealing with a zoo of parasites and afflictions. But after that, I have never been sick again because I learned how to mind my ways. There is a book, that is a refugee camp guide, that I have followed religiously for years. We all have to learn how to do that because now America has become like many places in the third world already are. You have to be mindful and careful in what you do. It's basically a good lesson. I hope we use this opportunity to reset our values. We need to start new and start better. For the musicians it has been a financial hardship, but you also can see it as an opportunity to come out of this flying. It's like a retreat right now, where everyone is practicing and learning and getting better. It's interesting too, when you think of compositions in the past that have come out of times of trouble.

AAJ: You know, I had thought about that in relation to the amount of time you have spent in Africa. But not to the degree that you have outlined. It's interesting that what has been a shock to most Americans is a way of life in many countries. Having been to Africa so many times now, do you build up a tolerance as well?

LS: No, you really don't so much. It is that you learn more and become more proficient in taking care of yourself. This is a difficult time, but really we should look at it as an opportunity to see and experience how much of the world actually is.

AAJ: To see how the other half live, is an old saying.

LS: Yes, exactly to see how the other half live. That's exactly right, Jim. It's a very sobering experience. There will be many things that will change coming out of this. For example, factory farming is inhumane and will be abolished. It's terrible.

AAJ: Oh yeah, that is disgustingly inhumane. You and I are both huge animal lovers, but I don't see how anyone can think that it is okay to do that.

LS: We need to change our ways in many areas. Sadly, people, in many respects have brought this on to themselves. You can't destroy our environment and disrespect our planet and expect a different outcome. We need to learn how to live together with our values in order.

AAJ: A sobering experience is indeed an accurate way of stating it. We have all taken things for granted, myself included, for a very long time. People are wondering when things are going to get back to normal. I don't think that we are going to see things go back entirely to what it was.

LS: This virus has highlighted a problem that already existed. The death rate has highlighted this issue for everyone to see. We can't hide from it anymore. We have to deal with it, and it will require some changes to do that.

AAJ: Not many musicians have traveled to Africa as extensively as you, however many have traveled the world. My point being that a high percentage of musicians have been through some form of this at one time or another, correct?

LS: Oh yes, Jim. Absolutely. We all get vaccinated in places like Indonesia and Hong Kong. We have had a chance to see the world and be a bit more knowledgeable. It's a big part of what I love about traveling. Learning about different cultures all over the world is fascinating. Many of my colleagues would agree, though, that we didn't think that is was going to happen here.

AAJ: No quick fix for gig-less musicians right now either. You must know plenty of your contemporaries that are really struggling to pay their rent and just as many that are pretty well off from the career that they have had. So, both sides of the spectrum and everything in between.

LS: Yes, and you know, Jim, the internet is a savior for so many. Being able to teach and reach out to students all over the world is an amazing thing. Not that many years ago we never would have thought such a thing as being possible. But, you know, Dave Weckl has had a very successful online school for fifteen years now. His studio is setup with cameras and lights and a lot of high-tech equipment. I mean it's a big operation.

AAJ: Weckl has, like, his own television studio going on. Smart on his part to have built it to that level.

LS: Yes, Dave has a very successful business. But too, you can start small, and if you want, to keep it small. You can just do one-on-one guitar lessons, or whatever instrument, but with as few or as many students that you want from anywhere around the world. It makes the world a little smaller. We can hopefully focus on some good things that can come out of this crisis as we try to move forward.

AAJ: Absolutely.

LS: Yes, just the other day in New York City a benefit raised over one hundred and ten million dollars to feed people. It's wonderful to see people coming together like that and making sure that everyone has food. No one will be starving, everyone will be fed. So, let's keep our spirits up, as we see the face of adversity, and focus on the good things that we have.

AAJ: That's well said, Leni. With that let's move on to someone in this conversation who has a new album coming out soon. Since your previous release, 3 (LSR, 2018), you have added a fourth member to your band. How did that come about? What does he bring to the band?

LS: Leo Genovese has been our favorite guest artist going way back for several years now. He has come to play, and sit in, with us in New York City at the 55 Bar. There are four or five clubs within walking distance in that area. During a break, or if one of us finishes a show early, we will go over to sit in with each other. So, Leo was always coming over from the Vanguard or one of the other clubs and sitting in with us. Finally, his schedule allowed him to become a member of my band. We managed to snag Leo and go to Argentina to play some shows and then to Angola. We actually started rehearsing some of the songs that are on the new record, 4(LSR, 2020), while we were in Angola. It's an extraordinary experience to have Leo in the band. He adds the Latin American rhythms to our African rhythms with Alioune Faye and Mamadou Ba (her longtime percussionist and bassist) and it becomes so much more rich and wonderful. Years ago, I used to listen to Brazilian rhythms and be taken in by those, so it is fun to have come full circle and have that sound in my band. The harmonic richness is much stronger now.

AAJ: Yes, it is. I've listened to 4 at least four or five times now. You know I have been a huge fan of your music for a long time and am always excited when you put out a new record. As always, to say the least, you didn't disappoint. Leo adds an edge, while not interfering with the trio.

LS: Thank you Jim. He also brings something else rather wonderful. Argentinian barbecue! We have gotten together with a group of friends in Queens. He knows some people that really know how to prepare it. It's very serious.

AAJ: Wow, that sounds like a delicious and seriously good time.

LS: Yes, it's a whole community that we are part of it through Leo. That's one of the great things about New York City is the different communities coming together. But we have always loved having Leo playing with the band. He was always our favorite. So, it is totally organic that he is our fourth. It's perfect.

AAJ: On your previous record, 3, you had songs that spoke of the baby naming ceremonies in Africa, as well as redirecting crocodile traffic, and much more. I can't wait to get into each song and discuss the meaning and instrumental arrangement. So, let's take it from the top with "Lambar."

LS: Oh yes, let's do that. "Lambar" is a rhythm from Mali. It's a very popular rhythm because it has many variations. It's not just like one pattern. It's a basic groove. The first recording I did from Africa was in Mali using musicians from Senegal. The Senegalese influence was also inspired early on in playing with Alioune and Mamadou. For years I would stay only in Mali and play the Mali festivals and a few other shows. So, I feel very connected to Mali. I feel like I am a part of Mali now. The song is a very cheery and danceable rhythm. I was just in Mali right before the shutdown. I needed to have some n'gonis repaired, visit some people, and practice in that environment. I'm very fond of Mali and its people. So, it seemed fitting to start the record with a tribute to my first African home.

AAJ: That's wonderful. Thank you for sharing that. I was going to simply say that it sure is an upbeat way to start a record, but you have given us a much deeper way to hear it. Now I know the next tune, "Amadeus," has a whole different cool cat muse to it.

LS: (laughing) Yes, you know I was quite excited to bring home a new cat, my precious little Princess Miu, that I wrote a song about her. There was all this excitement and I saw my older cat, Amadeus, having none of it. I felt so badly, he knew what was going on. This just wasn't right (laughing). So, I wrote a song for Amadeus. Out of my guilt came this extra beautiful song for him. I know you understand.

AAJ: I totally understand that. Cats are loving and beautifully sensitive.

LS: Yes, they are. They are so wonderful.

AAJ: This song is a beautiful ballad of warmth, sensitivity, and love.

LS: Amadeus is the most gorgeous creature on this planet. He has curly white fur with these amazing blue eyes. So, I guess I am the crazy cat lady (laughing harder).

AAJ: Well, we are right there with you, as you know. We could help you fill out your next album (laughing).

LS: (laughing hysterically) Yes you could. I tried to capture his beauty. Amadeus is a very soft and loving cat.

AAJ: The song is endearing, so I would say that you accomplished that.

LS: A few years ago, I had five cats and most of my friends started to think I was the crazy old cat lady!

AAJ: Well, they just don't get it, do they?

LS: No, they do not. But you know when this crisis started the ASCPA had a huge boom in foster cats and dogs. People want the companionship. They don't want to be alone.

AAJ: Really great that so many cats and dogs have found homes out of this crisis. Some part of a silver lining or the glass half full. I guess we aren't so crazy now to have always wanted that companionship and unconditional love.

LS: (laughing) Yes, I think that's right. Animals bring so much joy into a home.

AAJ: What is the release date for 4?

LS: June 19th.

AAJ: A shoutout on the new record goes to Sandrine Lee for the amazing cover art. That really pops!

LS: Isn't it wonderful? .Yes, I am blessed to have many creative friends. Sandrine is very creative and very talented.

AAJ: I have seen some of her photography, but I didn't know she was an artist in this sense.

LS: Oh yes, in fact there is a video on YouTube for a song we did called "Love." It uses all the colors and concepts that are on the album cover and much more. You should check it out.

AAJ: I most definitely will. In fact, I'll post it on All About Jazz in my review of 4.

LS: Wonderful. Sandrine also did another video for the song "Zamba" that hasn't been posted yet, but will be soon.

AAJ: Very nice, I'll look forward to seeing that as well. (It is now out and placed to be viewed at the conclusion of this interview)

AAJ: I had the pleasure of once again seeing you perform with Mike, along with Jimmy Haslip, Weckl, and Jeff Lorber this past December at the MIM in Phoenix. Any time I see you and Mike play together or see photos of you two playing together it is abundantly clear just how much fun you two are having and how much in love you two are. It's a beautiful thing.

AAJ: Thank you. Thank you so much for saying that Jim. We feel very fortunate especially in a time like now during this pandemic. This is the longest chance we have ever had the time to be together uninterrupted. We always have to go out on concert tours.

AAJ: Right, Mike would normally be off to Europe by now, and you would be off doing your thing with your band.

LS: Everything is canceled for the rest of the year. Actually, it has been rescheduled for next year. But when it is that far away, it feels like it has been canceled. We are having a wonderful time performing at home together. We are having a great time. Looking on the bright side, we have time to be together and to practice and to get better.

AAJ: That's a great attitude and perspective. Then, too, there is 4, your twenty-second studio album. Did you ever think you would do so many? Is it a little mind-boggling sometimes?

LS: Well, not so much from a composing point of view, it is not so mind-boggling. You know, you just keep writing songs, more and more songs. The only way to keep them alive is to record them. I have many more songs written than the ones I have recorded. I'm a composer before I am anything else.

AAJ: Some people who aren't familiar with your work are going to think that 4 translates to it being only your fourth album.

LS: Well, that will just make me younger (laughing).

AAJ: (laughing) That's true. Well, getting back to the new music, what is "Serrer" about?

LS: The Serrer people are very interesting. They are a very old, longstanding ethnicity in Senegal. They pre-date almost any other culture. This song is an homage to them.

AAJ: Is there a specific harmony or rhythm that is associated with the Serrer?

LS: Yes, well, actually it is more in the way they play. There is a certain articulation in their melodies. I have been very much inspired by their way of playing. They have a way of embellishing the music with a muted and plucked manner that I have always found quite interesting. The embellishment is ordinarily more with the bass, but I wanted to try it with the guitar on this song.

AAJ: Oh, now that's very interesting to know. I love the song anyways, but now I can listen and enjoy it differently with that information in mind. We have already talked a little bit about the next song, which is also your new cat, Princess Miu.

LS: My friend Kofu drove up to upstate New York with me to the breeder who had the cat that became my Miu. All the way up and back, he was playing many varieties of Nigerian rhythms on his guitar. By the time I got home I was so excited to have this new cat and to have all these great Nigerian rhythms rushing through my head. A car ride of Nigerian rhythms was Miu's introduction to me. From out of that experience, her song was born.

AAJ: The next song is a Genovese composition, yes?

LS: "Japalema" was written by Leo, yes. It is actually based on a Japanese melody. It's based on the Japanese pentatonic scale.

AAJ: What inspired him to come up with that?

LS: Well, we use a lot of pentatonic scales in African music. There are many scales and we were experimenting in the pentatonic range. There are pentatonic scales all over the world. Leo is an extraordinary composer in addition to being so talented as a musician.

AAJ: "Chartwell" I know is one of your compositions.

LS: I spent some time studying with Chartwell Dutiro from Zimbabwe. He was very knowledgeable about ritual and ancestral music. This song is my interpretation of the elements of this music that he taught me. It is also dedicated to Chartwell, our teacher, who passed away while we were making this record. We all felt very fortunate to study this incredible musical tradition.

AAJ: I have to say that there was something about "Chartwell" that moved me. Perhaps we now have a better understanding of why. "Habib," sadly involves a passing as well.

LS: Yes, "Habib" is our tribute to a bassist named Habib Faye (no relation to Alioune) that was a very dear friend. It was a big shock to all of us. He was young and we didn't even know that he was sick. About twenty years ago, Habib called me up on to the stage to play with an orchestra. He knew one of my songs. A blues tune that Mike had written for me. He had learned the song on bass and well, needless to say, we had been friends ever since. Mamadou grew up with Habib and wrote this beautiful tribute to him. Sometimes writing a song is a way of dealing with grief.

AAJ: Yeah, I could see how that would have really washed over him and that was his way of dealing or coping with it.

LS: I love the composition. I'm really glad he gave that to us.

AAJ: That's also the one that Mike (Stern) played on.

LS: Yes, Mike knew Habib as well. I also used to play the calabash in Habib's band.

AAJ: 4 then finishes up with "Zamba."

LS: "Zamba" is a rhythm from the north of Argentina. It is a dance rhythm. They dance with handkerchiefs. It's a famous Argentinian dance. It's a folklorian type dance. It is somewhat like a Brazilian samba. They both have African origin. I wondered why this was written down as zamba 264. Leo told me he had 365 zambas written for every day. (laughing) I thought he was kidding me. I mean, can you imagine?

AAJ: That's just staggering. You could do a volume of records just recording all of Leo's zambas (laughing).

LS: (laughing) I know, I know (laughing harder)

AAJ: Much success with 4, Leni. You did it again. It's another beautiful journey of music.

LS: Thank you so much, Jim. Thank you for being so supportive of my music over the years.

AAJ: Having some time off due to the pandemic has given you a chance to recall some memories. You have posted a few photos on Instagram recently that all would seem to have a story. For example, one with Keith Carlock and James Genus, back when you three were playing together. Your caption was in regard to those being fun times. So, I cleverly thought that might be something fun to talk about.

LS: We did and album together that was called the Kindness of Strangers (LSR, 2000) that was just a dream. I just loved playing with the two big boys. It was just fabulous (laughing in remembrance). I just loved the sound of the upright bass and Keith's drums. I always felt like I was the luckiest girl in town. It was wonderful. We just had such a great, great time together.

AAJ: It's great when it just comes together like that. I know you have told me before, that when you did your first record (Clairvoyant, Passport Jazz, 1986) with Bill Frisell and Paul Motian that you felt like your feet had left the ground and you were flying. You have been fortunate to have had many great connections from the beginning.

LS: You know, when you play with musicians of that caliber, you just have to not get in their way. Add something to what is there. It's not like you have to create the music. You just have to be mindful that you don't disturb anything. It's amazing because I was so scared to play with them. Then to find out how easy it was to play with people that are that great. They just lift you up. There is so much wonderful language there to be learned.

AAJ: You had a great language and chemistry with Wayne Krantz as well.

LS: Yes, you know it is much more common in rock to have two guitars players. Not so much in jazz. Usually a guitarist is going to play with a pianist or maybe something else.

AAJ: More likely a saxophone or a trumpet.

LS: Yes, a saxophone is more likely. But with Wayne, we just gave it a try and somehow it worked. It wouldn't work with just anyone, that's for sure.

AAJ: One more photo that really jumps out is in 1989 at the Gibson Guitar Awards. You were on stage with John Fogerty, Courtney Love, and many others.

LS: Eddie Van Halen. I was standing next to Eddie Van Halen.

AAJ: There you go, that's the one. You really popped out with very short red hair and a matching red jumpsuit. You were also very thin. I'm guessing this was during the time you were dealing with breast cancer. Not that we need to get into that. We have talked about that in the past.

LS: Yes, it was right after that. I had my hair short because of the therapy I did. I kept it short for a few years not thinking it would grow and be strong. I finally grew it all back. But Courtney Love was very sweet. I, of course, was thrilled to be standing next to Eddie Van Halen (adorably laughing/giggling akin to a giddy teenager)

AAJ: We have talked in the past also about your childhood memories from growing up in Germany. You spoke fondly about your father taking you to the circus to ride the ponies and hearing the Romani play the guitar and how enthralled you were with their music. Since that was a happy time for you, perhaps we could go back again for a moment or two. Do you have a story or remembrance or two that you could share today?

LS: I was very happy in my music classes as a child. I had a great classical piano teacher. I studied classical piano since I was very little. I was very fortunate because my teacher was a great artist. She was not just a teacher, but a very accomplished classical pianist. My favorite part was when she would say it was time for me to play a piece. She would ask if I wanted to play Mozart or something else or just what. I would always say that I can't decide and would ask her to play them for me so that I could decide. She would play them and wow, it was like something possessed her. It was magical the way she played. I have such fond memories of that time.

AAJ: So, if I am getting this right, you rather cleverly tricked her into performing a little personal concert just for you.

LS: Yes, yes (laughing) that is it exactly, Jim (laughing).

AAJ: History has dealt us many difficult hands in the past. A couple of years ago you mentioned that your father was a translator during World War II. That would seem a story to expand on that might put our current troubles in a different perspective.

LS: He refused to go to war. He was part of the Catholic resistance that were being placed in camps. They wanted nothing to do with killing people. He was a pacifist that otherwise would be sent to a concentration camp. Working as a translator allowed him, as well, to work on what he believed was the solution to end wars. That being if everyone learned to speak everyone else's languages and would get to know each other. Like they do in Switzerland with everyone speaking German, French, and Italian. We were all encouraged to learn many many languages. That's why I speak four languages. I'm working on learning more.

AAJ: There's a lot of wisdom there from your father on peace relations that still makes sense some seventy-five to eighty years later. Also gives some perspective to our current pandemic. Staying home is not the same thing as staying in a concentration camp.

LS: Yes, we have faced much worse. Still, we need to find a new normal and do it quick.

AAJ: Such an upbeat note and fond memory from a lifetime ago would seem an appropriate place for us to wrap up. As always, and I sincerely mean as always, a real treat and uplifting experience talking with you Leni.

LS: Thank you Jim. Give my love to Ronda. Always a pleasure.

AAJ: Thank you again Leni. My best to Mike and your wonderful kitties. Oh, and again, much success with 4!!

Photo credit: Sandrine Lee

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