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Leni Stern: The Twenty Year Audition

Leni Stern: The Twenty Year Audition

Courtesy Brock Pemberton


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The world is full of wonder. I love to travel. I feel like there are things going on out there and that if I stay home I am missing them.
—Leni Stern
Composer and musician Leni Stern has big news to share. She chose to do so quietly, with her usual cool, low-key and savoir-faire charm. In conversation with only my wife and I, recently at a jazz club in Los Angeles, she left us elated with the kind of news most other artists would be screaming from a mountain top. But that's not how this classy European-born artist rolls. It's another milestone accomplishment, in a career chalked with them. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. This calls for some background and historical perspective to really appreciate the highs and lows of the journey. I have had the good fortune to know, and get to know, both Stern and her guitar-virtuoso husband Mike Stern for several years now. One quote of hers that has always resonated with me, speaking in regard to the magnitude of Mike's career (well over twenty of his own original records filled with beautifully melodic compositions, and having played in Miles Davis' band) and his abundant skill set, is that "It is difficult for the little tree to grow in the shadow of the big tree."

That no doubt is true. Yet "the little tree" has blossomed over twenty records of her own as a leader. Original compositions and immaculate musicianship caught the ear of many established artists early on. From the beginning artists such as Michael Brecker, John McLaughlin, David Sanborn, Bill Frisell, Paul Motian, James Genus, Keith Carlock, Wayne Krantz, Dennis Chambers, and many others played on her records due to the depth of her compositions. Later, the little tree found even more fertile soil in Africa. Her total immersion into African culture and music was/is a staggering commitment. Her last several records have been a hybrid of African and American fusion. From her first record Clairvoyant ( Passport Jazz, 1986) to Dance ( LSR, 2021) her music has always embodied a distinct honesty that captures the singular and unique vibe that is Leni Stern.

But I promised you news, so let's start moving in that direction. Leni and Mike Stern have been together a long time. They were in birthday celebration mode at the outset of this conversation.

All About Jazz: Hi Leni. Happy New Year. How are you?

Leni Stern: Hi Jim. Nice to hear from you. Sorry we had to move it back a night.

AAJ: That's no worries. I do believe being in the kitchen making a special dinner for Mike's birthday way takes precedence. Hope you had a nice celebration.

LS: Oh we did! We did. I made Mike one of his favorites. Kind of a fruit tart filled with almonds and fresh cream, and a bunch of fresh fruit on the top.

AAJ: That sounds yummy.

LS Oh it was. The only problem was getting the candles to sit up right [laughs].

AAJ: [laughing] Yeah, I guess it didn't exactly provide a flat surface for that.

LS: No, but we made do [laughing]. It all went well. Thanks for asking.

AAJ: So Mike was celebrating number seventy-one. We were both born in 1953, but mine not until December. Every year when we see you play in December it is always my birthday celebration. That has been my choice for birthday celebrations for many many years now. With all the time you spend on the road I'm glad you were able to be home to celebrate this one. I know we are talking about birthdays here, but how many years have you and Mike been married now?

LS: I got married when I was twenty-eight and I am now seventy-one. So I do believe that is forty-three years.

AAJ: That is so cool. Remarkable really in this day and age, especially in the entertainment industry. Congratulations on that. Now you were both attending the Berklee School of Music when you met, correct?

LS: Yes, well Mike had just finished and was winding up his first professional gig playing with Blood, Sweat & Tears. One of my instructors was Bill Frisell, who of course Mike knew very well also. I also became good friends with Bill. It was actually Bill that introduced us. Mike came back to Berklee to play shows. On this particular evening I recall that Bill invited Mike to come out and hear the brilliant playing of trumpeter Tiger Okoshi at Boo's Bar in Boston. This is where and when Mike and I met. They ended up doing a couple of records together. This music was brilliant. It was kind of like Weather Report, but it came out before Weather Report and never got the recognition it deserved. At least not in my opinion.

AAJ: But it did lead you to the love of your life. In case you hadn't noticed I am chasing the love story here. [laughing] I can honestly say that I have never seen a couple more right for each other and in tune with each other than you two. You two are always smiling and always there for each other. Beyond the obvious high end musical skills, there is a dynamic there that defies words. When Mike had his fall, trip, or accident, whatever we want to call it, a few years back, it was challenging for him to get back on stage. You were there every step of the way to make sure he was okay. Your actions and support were nothing short of endearing to witness. Ronda [my wife] and I were awe-inspired by the vividly apparent level of love and concern.

LS: Jim, that is so very sweet for you to say that, and to in fact recognize that. He was there for me before to help me beat cancer.

AAJ: I know it hasn't always been easy. We have talked before about the fact that you beat cancer. I know Mike was very supportive of you at that time. Mike and I also have talked about you two overcoming addiction together. It was his opinion that most couples wouldn't be able to do that together. Maybe separately, but not going through the same therapy ensemble session together. He is quite certain that experience made you even stronger as a couple. Do you share that view?

LS: Oh, without a doubt that's true. I have to credit the great therapy and highly qualified therapists that we had. We were in the hands of true professionals. We dealt not only with the addiction, but also a lot of other things that started us on that road in the first place.

AAJ: Understanding what triggers it and not going down that road again.

LS: Yes, but you know too, there were a lot of us in New York that were getting high together during those years. Most of us got clean from heroin at the same time. I think that helped a lot. There were a lot of well-known artists in this group. Not that I would mention any names.

AAJ: You had your own built-in support system in place.

LS: Mostly still in place. You go to meetings when you need to. It's a process that continues on. Ultimately you choose your path. You can follow your compassion or be unconscious.

AAJ: Well said. It's a no-brainer when you look at it that way. I didn't intend to go even this far down that road today, so let's move on, get back to the music, and on with your announcement. But thank you sincerely for sharing part of your personal life with us. The news you are about to share with everyone is all the more special with the background we have preceded it with. You and Mike have always had your own separate bands, separate identities if you will. It's never been unusual for each of you to maybe play on one song on each other's record, but just the one. Also not unusual to see you sit in with the band over the years on maybe a song or two, so easy for no one to find nothing unusual about that. However, and why didn't I get Chambers or Dave Weckl to do a big drum roll here [laughing] for your announcement ?

LS: Well, Jim, the big news that I am so excited about is that after forty years I am now officially a member of the Mike Stern Band. I am so very excited about it! I'm no longer just sitting in.

AAJ: This is great news! And a huge addition for the Mike Stern Band. You've been sitting in when available for several years. But now this creates many more opportunities to play. Congratulations Leni. I am genuinely excited for you. .

LS: Thank you Jim. It's a dream come true. It's challenging and it pushes me in different directions.

AAJ: For one thing more soloing on your guitar. Your articulation has grown and matured over the years. Now you can fly with no limitations.

LS: Well, it helps to be able to play with Mike so often. I mean even when we are at home we sit on the couch and play, and play, and play some more! We play a lot of John Coltrane music and others that are challenging. We really get into Coltrane's "30:16." Talk about challenges. We have so much fun doing it! It's a blast, and yes, of course, the fluidity and articulation continues to grow. Thank you for picking up on that. As you know, I have a large discography of my own. I have recorded twenty two records as a leader. So this is really a collaboration of all the work we have done over the years. Mike actually laughed at himself wondering why it didn't bring me into the band sooner. I mean (laughing) I'm right here. Anytime you want to practice. But like I said, we play together all the time. We have spent much of our marriage on our own tours, so with a lot of time away from each other. So this is great not only musically, but now we will have so much more time together. You know even though we have been married for forty-three years, in many ways it seems like half of that. Mike has been out on tour so much of the time. So our time together has been much more limited than that of most couples. I should say that I have never once complained about him being gone so much.

AAJ: Well, I suppose you know what you are getting into. It goes with the territory.

LS: Yes, one might think so. However, I had two relationships end because of the time commitment and dedication needed to succeed in this business. This was well before I met Mike. They just didn't understand that I wasn't working a nine-to-five job and couldn't just stop when I got home.

AAJ: They would want to watch a movie or something and couldn't understand the time sacrifice you needed to practice. It takes the right partner. One who gets it. In this case, one who lives it himself. Well, it illustrates my point that you two are on the crest of happiness no matter when or where you are playing.

LS: Yes, and you know it wouldn't have to be music. Maybe one is studying to be a doctor or any number of other things. It takes time and discipline to go off into another room and stay there and focus for hours at a time. Not everyone is going to get that or want it to be like that. But I was that person when we got together. I'll never understand why people want you to change, after wanting to be with you for the person you are.

AAJ: Well the good news is that you and Mike found each other. And based on your earlier comment it really only took twenty years to pass the audition to the Mike Stern Band [laughing].

LS: [laughing hysterically]

AAJ: I have had the pleasure of seeing/hearing the Mike Stern Band more times than I can recall over the years. Just like on his records, he likes to utilize a lot of different musicians. Having played with tenor saxophonists Bob Berg, Bob Franceschini, Bob Sheppard, Bob Mintzer, and Bob Malach over the years, Mike laughingly once told me "That any Bob will do."

LS: laughing Yes, I think there were some other Bobs as well.

AAJ: Well, the point I wanted to make is that you bring a lot of versatility to the band. You provide a second lead guitar, a rhythm guitar, the n'goni, and rich beautiful vocals. You mentioned joining Mike's band creating different unexpected directions and challenges. Can you expand on that?

LS: Well, now I can play the songs from Mike's records. For example, Mike has always had various keyboards on many songs. It won't sound exactly the same of course, but I can learn the keyboard parts and replicate them on my guitar. There are a lot of overdubs and embellishments on Mike's records. Now I can bring them to the live show.

AAJ: So you can bring more of the depth of the record to the stage. That's a big plus to the depth or fullness of sound on stage. All those complementary elements that pianist Jim Beard has brought to Mike's records can now be realized on stage. Other pianists as well, of course, but Beard in particular comes to mind.

LS: Yes! Yes, it's so exciting to be able to play songs from Mike Stern Band records live. This is what makes me feel like I am truly contributing.

AAJ: You have had your own band for many years now featuring bassist Mamadou Ba, percussionist Alioune Faye, and more recently, keyboardist Leo Genovese. With the increased duties of the Mike Stern Band will you be able to keep your band together?

LS: Oh yes, most definitely.

AAJ: Outstanding. I'm really glad to hear that. All of the records you have released since embarking to Africa are exceptional. Your skills as a composer flourish when you are fusing African jazz with the more traditional. I know it took a lot of work and time and total immersion to create at that level.

LS: Yes and we will continue on. We will be doing more. In fact, we already have a few more in the can.

AAJ: I really like your composition "Like A Thief." You have been opening the show with that for awhile now. You have so many other great songs, have you thought about mixing it up?

LS: Interesting you mention that, as we have been talking about it. The song has to fit though. "Spell" is a possibility.

AAJ: Oh, from 3, ( LSR, 2018). As I recall, Mike plays on that song on the record. That's a bewitching song about the crossroads that features you singing in both English and African. I hope that one works its way in.

LS: Then there is "Show Me Your Face," which we have already included in the past. That's another possibility.

AAJ: Oh yeah, it's been awhile but I remember you doing that song. In fact, my memory may be failing me, but I feel as if I heard you play that song with your own band, with you joining Faye on some African percussion, as well as playing the n'goni. Regardless of that, it's an inspiring song from Spirit In The Water ( LSR, 2009).

AAJ: When we last spoke, four years ago, it was in the midst of the pandemic. I should probably clarify that we have been in touch during that period of time, of course. I'm referencing an actual interview. You had much insight on wearing masks and a variety of commonplace health and survival actions that you were already used to because of your expansive travels to Africa and many third world countries. While everyone was understandably downtrodden and distressed about lack of gigs, inability to make money etc., you found the silver lining. [This quote is from A Special Spirit, 2020]. "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." Ever the optimist, you went on to say, "Let's keep our spirits up in the face of adversity and focus on the good things we have." That was early in 2020. We need look no further than you to see that happening.

LS: I took it as the luxury of actually having time to practice. Normally you are traveling, playing, recording, composing, learning other people's songs, and working as a musician. There is just never enough time to really practice at a high level. So yes, I took the time, several hours a day, to learn the music from the Mike Stern Band records. Mike has composed and recorded a lot of music over the years. I'm so excited to now be able to play and truly contribute to the band on stage by playing his music. Everything else was gone, and it was very stressful with all the covid deaths, illnesses, and destruction. It was difficult with so much struggle going on around you. It was a contrast like no other. I couldn't go anywhere , so I found solitude in a room and put the time into practicing and learning. It's an opportunity an artist doesn't really ever have, unless you take a sabbatical.

AAJ: Just as you said you would and implored others to do so. Hopefully there are many other breakthrough stories as well. But for now, for today, we celebrate your determination.

AAJ: No conversation between us would be complete without talking about our mutual love of cats.

LS: We have three, two girls and a boy now. Two that are all white and a kitten that is black and white. I named her Ella after the great Ella Fitzgerald. But Mike calls her Holstein [laughing] because she looks like a Holstein cow. I don't like it so much [laughing].

AAJ: [laughing] Well, I see the humor. But a little less than dignified. Please tell me your precious Amadeus is still with us.

LS: Yes, sixteen years old and still doing well.

AAJ: Excellent. So glad to hear that.

LS: Well, we brought in a kitten so that the older ones will be more active. They need to move around more.

AAJ: Yes, we have the same dilemma with, but with just four cats now. None of whom are getting any younger. We will have to ponder the kitten concept. They do get sedentary. You, yourself, are anything but that. Not only all the music and travel, but kung fu too. How did you get started with that?

LS: I was doing yoga about thirty-five years ago. I met a man who was really into martial arts. We started discussing both yoga and martial arts and we made a pact that I would check out martial arts and he would check out yoga. Now I have been doing kung fu for thirty-five years. I felt better, stronger, slept better, and felt more confident within days of starting martial arts.

AAJ Great exercise, but I would guess more about self defense.

LS: Carrying around expensive musical equipment is a serious hazard of this job. If I was a mugger, I would be looking for someone like me with thousands of dollars of equipment strapped to my back.

AAJ: Wow, we have talked about the hard work and dedication of the music business, but so dangerous too.

LS: Yes, unfortunately, Mike has been held up at gunpoint a few times. They are in for a surprise with me. I'm not such a nice old lady at the scene of a crime.

AAJ: Wow, that is a scary aspect of the business. As if all the travel doesn't have enough peril. Although I read recently just how much you love to travel. Is it seeing the world or more opportunities to play?

LS: It's both really. But I do love seeing other parts of the world, learning about their cultures. Even immersing myself in other cultures. So I mostly enjoy traveling. Many of my contemporaries are pretty burnt out on it. Mike gets a bit tired of it, but he loves to play. So it's worth it for him. I get antsy if I stay home too long. I feel like there is something going on out there in the world and that I am missing it if I am home. The world is full of wonder.

AAJ: "The world is full of wonder." That seems like a great thought and quote to wrap up with today. Congratulations again on the Mike Stern Band gig. The timing is finally just right for this cool collaboration.

LS: You know, in the past I had to be a producer, arranger, driver, conductor, road manager, and much more. It's luxurious to be able to come to the show and just play. I'm one happy girl right now. I'm lovin' it!

AAJ: So very glad to hear that. Thanks for the interview. Thank you for the honor of breaking the news of full time status with the band in my column. It's those little gestures that make you part of that special spirit you are.

LS: Well you know Jim, it never feels like an interview with you. Just a fun and pleasant conversation. Do take care.



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