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. 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 Julian "Cannonball" Adderley.
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.
I was first exposed to jazz at the age of seven. I used to listen to Miles Davis and Wes Montgomery all the time. My late dad was a violinist and my sister was a music teacher so there was always (jazz) music playing in our home
I was first exposed to jazz at the age of seven. I used to listen to Miles Davis and Wes Montgomery all the time. My late dad was a violinist and my sister was a music teacher so there was always (jazz) music playing in our home. I later went to study Jazz guitar at various institutions internationally. My favourite was Trinity College of Music in London. I met a few life long friends there.
Jazz is a way of life and I would certainly not change it for anything or anyone. Music is Happiness So, Let it Play... Play... Play.