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Leni Stern: Finally The Fame Has Come


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Leni Stern has long been a triumphant voice of inspiration. The truth and steadfast beauty of her lyrics and music has touched many hearts around the world.

Recognition is a slippery slope, especially when one is not seeking or prioritizing it. Stern has stayed true to her roots and focused her impressive compositions, vocals, and guitar skills in a manner befitting of a woman steeped in authenticity and artistic vision. Still, it is also befitting that her critically acclaimed work is now being appreciated and imbued more than ever.

All About Jazz recently had the pleasure of having a most fascinating, joyous, and educational conversation with Stern.

All About Jazz: I have been looking forward to this opportunity to talk with you, Leni. It is much appreciated that you shared the "secret link" to your upcoming new release. Now, will this be an EP, a CD, an IOU, an IRA or in just what form?

Leni Stern: It's an LP. This is a vinyl project. It's thirty two minutes long and that's about all the music you can put on vinyl. With CD's we all started making them longer and longer, because you could. But on vinyl you can't do more than seventeen minutes a side.

AAJ: Strictly vinyl. That's some great sound quality.

LS: Yes, vinyl has such a wonderful sound and I really wanted to have that.

AAJ: In December I had the opportunity to talk to your husband [guitarist Mike Stern] at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix AZ. He described your new record, "3," as "so fucking good." After listening to it a few times I believe if anything he might have undersold it. It's a truly brilliant and powerful effort. Please tell us all about it.

LS: You know the last record [Dakar Suite 2016] I did a lot of arranging and orchestrating with violins and horns. It was a very large project. It's something you don't get to do often because it is very expensive to go on the road with a ten piece band. Usually I play in a trio or quartet format. So I wrote these pieces for a three piece, rather than adapting a ten piece composition. That's why the record is called 3. Although I do have some guests such as Gil Goldstein, and my husband on a couple of songs. It's always a celebration to make a record! I once again paid homage to our biblical ancestors in Africa. I chose from the type of music I got to play in Africa. The song "Barambai" is based on the chanting and the rhythms. The beginning is the call of the baby naming ceremony. I was in Africa studying rhythms and I got to accompany my teacher's day-to-day routine. One of these was the baby naming ceremony. It's one of my favorites because it is such a happy occasion. Everybody shouts and gets excited and says come, come, come, we are going to name the baby now! I wrote a composition that is very closely inspired by one of these rhythm variations.

AAJ: Tell us about your collaborators, bassist Mamadou Ba and percussionist Alioune Faye. They are most talented.

LS: Aren't they now? They were both seventeen and had a very famous and popular band in Africa. But by the time they were nineteen they went to America. Faye went on to perform with the Senegal National Ballet and at the Lincoln Center in New York City with the The Harper Brothers and Youssou N'Dour. He shared, and taught, the African tradition of percussion. Ba went on to become Harry Belafonte's musical director. They still have that feel of having played together for a long time.

AAJ: The first time through on your new music I didn't pay attention to the song titles. I was focused on listening. One song in particular transported me to another place. I laughed later when I saw that it is called "Spell." How did this bewitching piece come together?

LS: Well, you have to be initiated in Africa. So, before you can play, they ask the spirits if you are worthy. So, I was initiated. Now, like my African percussion colleagues, I can cast a spell if I choose to do so. It's fascinating how our jazz and history came from Africa. Of course there is the famous blues song, "Crossroads." The crossroads are the place you meet at night. You ask the tough questions at the crossroads. If there is something you want to ask about, you make those requests at the crossroads. So, I chose that parable to express my feelings and make my wishes known to the spirit world. Then they can decide what they want to do.

AAJ: When is the record due to be released?

LS: It is coming out on my birthday, April 28th.

AAJ: What can you tell us about the African instrument you play?

LS: I pay homage to the n'goni, the instrument I played. It is one of the original African instruments. I play a four string. I have also played a seven string that was developed by my teacher, Bassekou Kouyate. He is a very famous n'goni player in Africa. I believe that the original grooves were played on the n'goni. Composing music based on this was my way of tracing back, and again paying homage to our ancestors. This is something I have great respect for, and certainly did not develop. I discovered it, and can now express it in my own way of playing music.

AAJ: The n'goni is fretless. Would it be accurate to say that you can slide on it?

LS: Yes, you can slide and flex all these African embellishments. With a guitar it is much more difficult to reach these embellishments and reach your voice. So, yes, you can play a super embellished style with the n'goni and fuse it into rock and blues and jazz. A guitar makes you work very hard for that. I have developed a style like that with the guitar. But with the n'goni it is just easier.

AAJ: Your skills as a jazz guitarist were evident from the beginning with Clairvoyant[1985]. It would seem your articulation is now, however, at a very preeminent level. Has integrating the African sounds and rhythms enhanced your playing?

LS: No doubt. No doubt. It offers a better understanding of where jazz comes from. The blues in the truly melodic form is so expressive. Then we are able to translate this to the guitar with the phrasing and musical content. We learn so much about harmony. We learn about melody as well, but it's really the harmony and the rhythms. You mainly learn harmony when you study jazz. I studied Indian music for ten years as well. That is steeped in the melodies. So it is interesting to learn and embrace these styles. This international music has influenced my playing as much as my heroes John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley.

AAJ: Speaking of Clairvoyant, what reminisces do you have of those days playing with Bill Frisell and Paul Motian?

LS: It was a dream come true to play with them. You know Bill was my teacher in Boston[Berklee]. Then when he came to New York I continued studying with him. I was writing and composing at the time. Bill told me that if I wanted to play, I had to get a gig. He told me that if I could get a gig, that he would play with me. Well, I don't think he thought I would get one[laughter]. But I got one, and we played. Then we got bigger ones because people liked our sound. At that time, the great Paul Motian quit his jazz band. Bill said that he is available and that I should call him. I had a lot of trust in Bill, so I took a shot and called him. Playing with them was amazing. I was so nervous at first. I thought it was the dumbest thing I had ever done until we started playing the first time. Then I realized I had never sounded better. When you play with great musicians it isn't hard. I felt like I was two feet off the ground. I loved it. Paul liked playing with girls. He liked being a little controversial. He always had the prettiest girlfriend and everyone was so jealous [laughter].

AAJ: You have played at the 55 Bar in NYC for many years now. Tell us about that.

LS: Yes, the 55 Bar has become like a workshop to me. You never know if it's any good. So I get a chance to try out all my new compositions. It's a small club that holds one hundred people or so. We keep a residency there to play our new material and to share our ideas. It's very important when you compose something to understand that it gets complex and it doesn't really belong to you anymore. It becomes a creation of its own and you just have to try to bring that out when you play. Maybe the tempo I wrote it in isn't really the best. Maybe it needs to be faster; maybe lots of things. You need to be willing to experiment. When you play it live it becomes obvious. It's like the song is born.

AAJ: So writing is planting a seed and playing it live is perhaps as if you are now watering it and watching it grow.

LS: Yes it is. That's a very good analogy.

AAJ: You have had the opportunity to play with many jazz greats. One I would love to hear your memories and impressions of is Michael Brecker.

LS: When I met Michael he had just finished his African record and had two African drummers on the road with him. Michael appreciated the core of African music. It's like when you study jazz you ask, "What is swing? Why does it swing?" It's hard to answer. So Michael pursued the "Where did that come from?" questions. So, when I first went to Africa, I did a project with UNICEF. It was a project that was a competition for the best young recording artists in Africa to go to France and be educated in record engineering. I was playing at the Festival in the Desert in Mali. It was a dream come true to be playing there. Salif Keito [African singer and songwriter] was in charge of the UNICEF project. He hired me to put a band together for the young engineers to work with. I invited all the musicians I played with at the festival to participate. When I came home I thought I would add some American stars onto it so that we would have something that would sell better. All the proceeds were for UNICEF. Michael went crazy over the idea. He insisted on playing on it. He loved that I had followed our roots. It was so wonderful to play with him. I used to sit in my room and transcribe his songs and then show up at the studio in the morning and play them with him. His insights into African rhythms and African song forms led me back to Africa with more questions and more ideas. Just months before Michael died, I went to a ceremony where they played the cowrie shells. I let the spirits know that a friend of mine was going to die. "What can you do? What can you do?" I asked repeatedly. I knew nothing could be done. But here I was, a white girl from Germany, that lives in New York. I don't believe in it completely, but I accepted that they do. I had to try. When I got back to New York, Michael had died. I felt in a strange way that the spirits had prepared me for this loss. Michael was not well at all before I left for Africa. But he insisted on playing. He played superbly on Africa and Alu Maye[ both 2007] The spirits helped me to mourn, connecting human spirits and religion.

AAJ: That was heavy. Maybe it's a good time to lighten things up a bit.[Leni breaks out in laughter]. I saw a photo several years ago of you and Mike at home with two beautiful white cats. As a huge animal lover and rescuer, I'm curious to know if you still have cats or any other pets?

LS: One of those white cats is still with us. Although his brother passed, Maximillan is still with us and is now twenty one years old. Oriental cats can get very old. In addition we have two other cats now.

AAJ: Twenty one years old. That is really awesome. Perhaps you could tell us about your childhood, especially in relationship to music.

LS: The first music I really liked was that of the Romani. This was a large community in Germany. I didn't want to go to school. I just wanted to learn to play. I always thought the Roma kids were the luckiest kids in the world. I had voice lessons when I was a little girl. My mother took me to music lessons. I had the obligatory piano lessons for twelve years. The bargain was that if I studied the piano properly, I was also allowed to play the guitar. And then there was voice, because I liked to sing. But I was always more interested in being a guitarist than a vocalist. When studying became serious, I had to choose. So, I chose the guitar. Then, in America, I studied composition. My voice became my instrument when studying and playing Indian music. I don't play an Indian instrument, but was able to use my voice in that capacity.

AAJ: Finally The Rain Has Come[2002] is a personal favorite of mine. It is such a fantastic piece of work. The song "Bury Me Standing" gets me every time. It's not just a favorite song of yours, but a classic overall. It's so lyrically strong. Where did that song come from?

LS: It's a song about the Romani, the people who have been discriminated against. In America, the African Americans. In Germany, they are the Roma. Until a very few years ago, a judge in Bavaria would not imprison a farmer for shooting a Roma. The concentration camps were built for the Jews and the Romani. They put out such wonderful music. When I was a child the circus would come to town in Germany. My father would take me to ride the ponies. I always saw the Romani playing guitar and making this big, big, music. They cultivated such great music and I was a big fan. Later, as an adult, I read the book Bury Me Standing [Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey was written by Isabel Fonseca and published in 1995]. I always wondered if I had some Roma blood in me. I had a grandmother that married a chimney sweep. This was a profession that was done by the Romani like a horse-smith. You had to be a traveling man to do those jobs. I've always wondered if someone in my family didn't keep a secret, and that's why I play guitar like that. Sometimes it was like, "What is it that you aren't telling me?"

AAJ: Your husband also mentioned that when you are at home you two jam on Coltrane stuff. Just how cool and fun is that?

LS: It's really fun. I love to play with Mike Stern. I am a very lucky girl. I get to play with him every day. He is so kind. He practices with me all the songs I need to play. I play in a South American band called Oxossi and a large ensemble called the Monika Herzig Band. I sometimes play in a big band. On all of these projects Mike plays at home with me. We both have our own projects but we like to play a song or two on each other's records. Maybe do a cameo at a show. Mike is my favorite person and favorite guitarist. I love what he plays on this new record. He was very excited about it.

AAJ: Let's talk a bit more about the new record.

LS: Oh, well let me tell you about the last song on the record. It is called "Crocodile." It is a song about people going out and capturing crocodiles. They have people, like a whole family or tribe, that specializes in getting crocodiles out of the wrong places. There is a chant they use, and that I incorporate into this song. According to legend, when a crocodile hears the chant it will ease up. But I'm not going to try that [laughter]. But, it is interesting the way they hypnotize the animals with the drums. They try to put them in a trance before they tie them up and move them.

AAJ: I have listened to many other artists that have attempted to integrate African and Indian music into jazz. Frankly, it often sounds quite disjointed. As in, here are twenty seconds of jazz, now here are twelve seconds of chants, followed by ten more seconds of jazz, etc. Your fusion is remarkably seamless and blends as one. It must have indeed taken a total immersion of time and focus to climb this mountain and reach such spectacular heights.

LS: Thank you very much. One of my favorite things is Shakti. This is John McLaughlin's band that is a mixture of jazz and Indian music. John studied, and can teach, Indian music. He is a very good friend of mine. He played on Finally The Rain Has Come. So did Zakir Hussain. I studied African music for ten years after the ten year study of Indian music. I finally am feeling my way. There is so much music in Africa. Every tribe has their own take. Africa is a continent and a treasure trove of music and languages. This adventure was modeled with John's work firmly in mind. Some people think that African music is savage music with people banging around on the drums. That's just not true [spoken with emphasis]. The songs are over nine hundred years old. The Americans justified slavery and colonialism by saying that these people are like savages, and we have caged them. That's not true! They conquered an empire and subjugated them. I sometimes think that is why Western artists are so arrogant and think that it would be just like one, two, three to learn the African music. There is no one, two, three of learning hundreds and hundreds of rhythms. The mixture of cultures is the ultimate. The cadences are so different. It can take years to grasp how a cadence works.

AAJ: You mentioned earlier sometimes playing South American rhythms.

LS: Yes we went on a tour of South America last year and we found all these great South American bands. We played all over Argentina and we met a lot of other musicians. We have here, in New York, a Colombian percussionist, bandleader, and arranger extraordinaire named Samuel Torres. He is one of my favorite people. He comes in and sits in with us sometimes. So then we are mixing the South American and African rhythms. There is a song on the new record called "Colombiano" that was written for him. People get excited when they hear that the Colombiano is coming in today.

AAJ: Thank you so very much for taking the time today, Leni. Your skills of composition, your voice and phrasing, your guitar and n'goni skills, are beyond reproach. Yet, you have often been considered more of a niche artist that somehow has stayed under the radar. It seems as though that tide is shifting and that after over thirty years of writing and recording top shelf material, more recognition is coming your way. Does it feel that way to you?

LS: Well, it is hard for the little tree to grow in the shadow of the big tree. I hope so, and yes, I think so. You know, my talents are in composing and performing music, not in marketing myself. I have never wanted to do something just for the sake of being successful. It's more about being true to yourself and the music.

AAJ: We will look forward to your new record release, 3, on April 28th. Thank you again.

LS: Thank you. I really enjoyed talking with you. Be sure to send me some cat photos.

AAJ: I will indeed.

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