Strings of life

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Paul Wei­de­man

Leni Stern, one of the more free­wheel­ing jazz/blues mu­si­cians on the scene to­day, plays Gig Per­for­mance Space on Satur­day, March 7. In re­cent years, the Ger­man-born elec­tric gui­tarist and singer has ex­panded her range through col­lab­o­ra­tions with mu­sic-mak­ing peers in West Africa. The Santa Fe con­cert fea­tures her combo with bassist Ma­madou Ba and drum­mer Alioune Faye, both from Sene­gal. On the cover is a photo of Stern by San­drine Lee.

Leni Stern’s mu­sic was al­ways good — her fluid, pow­er­ful elec­tric gui­tar ex­er­cised in a va­ri­ety of set­tings, mostly on her own com­po­si­tions — but she has re­ally bloomed since she be­gan her col­lab­o­ra­tions with African mu­si­cians. In 2006, the jazz/blues gui­tarist and singer played the Fes­ti­val in the Desert in Tim­buktu, Mali, shar­ing stages with Malian pop singer Salif Keita and Baaba Maal, a singer and gui­tarist from neigh­bor­ing Sene­gal. De­scrib­ing the fes­ti­val ac­tion in an in­ter­view with Amer­i­can Blues Scene Mag­a­zine last De­cem­ber, Stern said, “Every­body jams! I wasn’t sure what to play, so I tried play­ing my blues licks, and they said, ‘Oh, she knows Malian mu­sic!’ ”

It was one of the first in a se­quence of in­sights she has ex­pe­ri­enced re­gard­ing the similarities be­tween West African mu­sic and Amer­i­can blues and jazz. See if you can hear them as well when the Leni Stern African Trio plays Gig Per­for­mance Space on Satur­day, March 7. One el­e­ment to lis­ten for is the call-and-re­sponse ef­fect. An­other, which no one will miss, is the strong, dy­namic drum­ming. “That’s some­thing that’s been so ab­sent in the West­ern Hemi­sphere,” Stern said in a re­cent in­ter­view with Pasatiempo . “You also find it in Brazil­ian mu­sic and Cuban mu­sic — all th­ese styles that are very shaped by their rhyth­mic el­e­ments.”

She learned a lot from join­ing forces with three of Mali’s mu­sic stars: Toumani Di­a­bate and Bassekou Kouy­ate and his wife, Amy Sacko. Stern ex­panded her in­stru­men­tal reper­toire by study­ing the ngoni, the African an­ces­tor of the Amer­i­can banjo, with Kouy­ate. Sacko, the lead singer in his fa­mous band, Ngoni Ba, took Stern to lo­cal wed­dings, baby nam­ings, and fu­ner­als, where she played gui­tar us­ing a por­ta­ble am­pli­fier.

Sacko also told her about West Africa’s griot sto­ry­telling tra­di­tion, which — like other el­e­ments of the mu­sic — came to the United States with the 17th- and 18th-cen­tury slave trade. The Amer­i­can Blues Scene ar­ti­cle re­calls the re­search of folk­lorist Alan Lo­max, who wrote that, “through the work of per­form­ers like Blind Lemon Jef­fer­son [and] Char­lie Pat­ton, the griot tra­di­tion sur­vived full-blown in Amer­ica with hardly an in­ter­rup­tion.”

Back in New York City, Stern searched the African im­mi­grant com­mu­nity, ul­ti­mately find­ing the two mem­bers of her cur­rent trio: bassist Ma­madou Ba, who was once mu­si­cal direc­tor for Harry Belafonte and has worked with avant-garde sax­o­phon­ist Archie Shepp and Pak­istani-Amer­i­can gui­tarist Rez Ab­basi; and per­cus­sion­ist Alioune Faye, who is a mem­ber of Sene­gal’s renowned Sing Sing Five Fam­ily Orches­tra.

Stern last recorded in Mali dur­ing the 2012 coup d’état. “The sit­u­a­tion has im­proved, but tourism is ru­ined and the mu­sic scene is dam­aged. The big Fes­ti­val in the Desert is no more,” she lamented. “I like be­ing low-pro­file, and I go to the part of towns where the ngoni mak­ers are. I qui­etly slip in and out of the coun­try, but noth­ing where my face would be on a poster.”

Leni Stern is a trav­eler. That state­ment opens her bi­og­ra­phy at www.lenis­tern.com and sym­bol­izes her mu­si­cal open­ness. Not just blues and jazz and African mu­sic, but other mu­sic of the world in­hab­its her sen­si­bil­ity. In 2001, for in­stance, she spent three months study­ing ra­gas in Mumbai, In­dia, and per­formed at the Bom­bay Jazz Fes­ti­val. But her mu­sic ed­u­ca­tion be­gan with lessons in clas­si­cal Euro­pean pi­ano, at age six. One day, she went up to the at­tic and found her mother’s acous­tic gui­tar. She tried play­ing along with her five broth­ers, but their loud mu­si­cal an­tics son­i­cally over­whelmed her. Her mother said they’d have to buy her an elec­tric gui­tar. That was a Gibson ES-330.

“I was ten years a clas­si­cal pi­ano player, but that was the for­mal Ger­man train­ing, and on the gui­tar I could just try to copy things that I liked. Now I wish I had kept up with the pi­ano, but when you are a teenager, all the rules and reg­u­la­tions are dif­fi­cult. The elec­tric gui­tar is what I iden­ti­fied with, and I didn’t think the grand pi­ano was go­ing to get me a boyfriend.”

In her youth, Stern worked as an actress on a Ger­man tele­vi­sion show for a few years, but in 1977 she switched gears, en­rolling at Berklee School of Mu­sic in Bos­ton. “I was at Berklee for two and a half years. I was shut­tling back and forth be­tween Ger­many and Amer­ica, then I moved to New York.”

She was in the jazz groove. Join­ing her for her 1985 de­but al­bum, Clair­voy­ant , were Paul Mo­tian on drums and Bill Frisell on gui­tar, and Stern later led bands with sax­o­phon­ist Michael Brecker and gui­tarist John McLaugh­lin. More re­cently, she has worked with a ros­ter that in­cludes bassist Esper­anza Spald­ing and vi­o­lin­ist Jenny Schein­man. Stern won Gibson Gui­tar’s Fe­male Jazz Gui­tarist of the Year Award for five con­sec­u­tive years.

At a cer­tain point, she moved from the Gibson ES-330 to a Les Paul model. “From there I went to the Fen­der Tele­caster. I started lov­ing the honk­ing sound of the Fen­der. It’s so ex­pres­sive!”

On her first six al­bums, she was strictly an in­stru­men­tal­ist. (As is her hus­band, jazz gui­tarist Mike Stern.) But be­gin­ning with 1995’s Words , her records had her both play­ing and singing. In 1997, she es­tab­lished her own record­ing com­pany, Leni Stern Records (LSR), which has pub­lished all her sub­se­quent CDs. Jel­lel , her 20th CD, was re­leased in 2013. The ti­tle is a phrase in Africa’s Wolof di­alect that means “Take it!” or “Seize the mo­ment!” That sen­ti­ment truly drives the al­bum: Check out the ti­tle-track video on YouTube.

Stern said two of her younger in­spi­ra­tions th­ese days are singer Gretchen Par­lato and bassist Richard Bona, who played on Mike Stern’s 2012 al­bum, All Over the Place . Leni Stern guests on her hus­band’s new­est, Eclec­tic (with Eric John­son), which came out last Oc­to­ber on the Heads Up la­bel.

She is now at work on a new al­bum. “We are, and we will do some of those new songs in Santa Fe. I like to take new songs to live au­di­ences, and they will take shape — in this case, in Amer­ica and in Europe. Then we will record it in May. I have a lot of word­less songs this time. And a lot of the lyrics are tra­di­tional chants. They’re all folk songs that we ar­range.”

She will be bring­ing an ngoni, as well as her Tele­caster, to Santa Fe. “Ab­so­lutely, I will. I adapted the ngoni to play my mu­sic, and it’s a con­tin­u­ous quest be­cause it lends it­self to that very well. I be­lieve when the West Africans were brought here, they had their in­stru­ments taken away, and they tried to play on the gui­tar what they used to play on the ngoni. A lot of the old blues riffs are eas­ier to play on the ngoni than the gui­tar.”

In West Africa, Stern saw that the mu­si­cians string their ngo­nis with fish­ing line. “You wind your own strings. Toumani Di­a­bate put harp strings on the kora, so Bassekou and I tried putting harp strings on the ngoni, and Bassekou has both harp strings and fish­ing line,” she said, laugh­ing. “So now I’m im­port­ing harp strings to Mali by the bucket.”

I was ten years a clas­si­cal pi­ano player. Now I wish I had kept up with the pi­ano, but when you are a teenager all the rules and reg­u­la­tions are dif­fi­cult.The elec­tric gui­tar is what I iden­ti­fied with, and I didn’t think the grand pi­ano was go­ing to get me a boyfriend.

— Leni Stern

Leni Stern, Alioune Faye, and Ma­madou Ba

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