Listening In: Leni Stern, High-Flying Bird
We miss so many things about live music—the way music becomes the air in which it resides, the way an audience sweats and breathes—but the irreplaceable element remains the epiphanic peak: the frozen in time, hyper-charged extended moment, the transportive summoning of the gods. We remember those with a golden penumbral glow, a haze of synesthetic grandeur.
It was in one such setting that I first encountered the guitarist Leni Stern. It was 2008, and I was in the front row at an ecstatic performance by the Malian superstar Salif Keita, a frighteningly powerful singer known as the Golden Voice of Africa (and member of the Keita royal family, to boot). Suddenly, he started gesturing to a woman right next to me, urging her to come on stage. That was Leni. She was pulled up, stepped into a handed-off guitar, and—radiating joy and gratitude—reeled off an emotional, in-the-pocket solo that lit up the huge audience and had Keita leaping in encouragement. Her emergence out of the crowd (and her return to us just after her solo) added a magical quality to her appearance.
The musician I discovered that day had been playing jazz on the New York scene for about 20 years. Born in Munich and having studied at the Berklee College of Music, she formed an early trio with Bill Frisell and Paul Motian. Along with her husband, fellow guitarist Mike Stern, she was at the forefront of a thriving scene at 55 Bar. About 15 years ago, her growing interest in African music took a dramatic turn upward, when she accepted an invitation to play at the Festival in the Desert; the gathering took place in northern Mali from 2001 until political events of recent years made it untenable. “It was in a part of the world that I had always wanted to play. And they had people like Bonnie Raitt, who I love, and Robert Plant mixed in with lots of African artists. We played all night long with everybody at the festival. I look back at that as this period of endless possibilities.” The festival itself was begun in part to commemorate a hopeful moment in the history of that war-torn country, the creation of the Flamme de la Paix (Flame of Peace) in 1996, when 3,000 firearms were destroyed and transformed into a monument.
From that moment, her engagement with African music grew quickly. “I was involved with a project to train African engineers, a competition where the winner would spend time in Paris and Bamako to learn what it’s like to work in a big studio. I met one of these engineers when he was just an assistant, but very accomplished. We were in the same hotel. I started recording in the studio with him, and I continue to work with him all this time later.”
“Soon after I met this engineer, I thought, why don’t I record a track and give it to them to see if they can use it for this project? And that connected me to this huge group of musicians and producers. When I came back to America with that reference, with that contact, it was like everybody had records they wanted me to play on.”
Stern started to play with Keita, as well as Senegalese singer-guitarist Baaba Maal, another giant of African music. She began to study the n’goni, a traditional instrument that produces a pungent, plaintive sound, with Malian master Bassekou Kouyate, spending considerable time in Bamako and Dakar.
There have been adjustments. She has worn the veil and covered her head when required: “It’s about knowing other people’s customs and respecting them.” Regional instability has made travel there in recent years more difficult, but Stern has still managed to get in: “Visitors were only allowed in for essential travel. What can I say, I needed to get new skins for my n’goni.”
These stories reminded me of another pan-African pioneer, pianist Randy Weston. In his fascinating autobiography African Rhythms (2010), he recounts tales of wanting to integrate his love of jazz as a kid growing up in Brooklyn with the glories of Africa, which his father—a Marcus Garvey acolyte—had always advocated. After several years of touring around Africa, often to rapturous receptions, he decided in 1970 to move to Tangier and open a music club. While there, he encountered the sacred joujouka musicians of Morocco and recorded with them. He wanted to connect the sound he heard from Armstrong and Ellington to the motherland, and he never ceased in his quest to do so.
Stern shows a similar zeal. She has been playing African-informed music in New York and around the world since her first encounter with it, starting with a trio including bassist Mamadou Ba and percussionist Alioune Faye, now expanded to include Argentine keyboardist Leo Genovese. “Another love of mine is South American music. Leo brings a different flavor, the whole pentatonic thing. You can look at African and South American music and find a lot of common roots. I’m very lucky to have these guys in my band.”
Her new release with the group, coming out in June on her label, Leni Stern Recordings (LSR), is called Dance, and it was recorded in NYC in the COVID summer of 2020: “The music has a drama to it. It’s really uplifting, even though the time it was made in was very dark.” The first released song is an addictive gem called “Kono (Bird).” Stern wrote the song in English, but added verses in Bambara and Wolof. She sings them in a soft, chalky voice with shades of Rickie Lee Jones. The result, like so much this group does, is a natural syncretic fusion, a true merging of traditions into a melded whole. The record has a Weather Report feel, which makes sense given Stern’s early love of fellow Germanic adventurer Joe Zawinul.
Stern looks forward to the days when she can return to Mali. “I’m also hoping that, in the future, tourism will come back. Mali is the oldest civilization in Western Africa. It’s home to the Great Mosque of Djenné, from the eighth century, which was the site of the first university. But it has a very poor security rating. It’s very hard to turn that around. They need to be able to say it is safe again. Right now you don’t want to go outside at night.”
The guitarist and composer has weathered the past year well in New York. “My band was my bubble during the quarantine. I also took a lot of time to play on my own or with Mike. It was perfect for focusing on your craft, because there were no tours, no distractions. You could play through the whole Coltrane catalogue, just as an exercise. I think we were the lucky ones because we had our refuge, and we could fill our time with things we love, with art and music.” Like the high-flying bird she sings about in “Kono,” Stern continues to soar.