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Leni Stern: Finally The Fame Has Come

Jim Worsley By

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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.
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