By Kevin Zimmerman
Leni Stern Steps Out
When you’ve started out playing the piano at age six and guitar at eleven, chances are that music is going to play a big part in your life. So it is with Leni Stern, a composer/guitarist whose jazz stylings have won her wide acclaim by the likes of Guitar Player and The New Yorker, and whose more recent explorations of African musics have been greeted with equal enthusiasm.
“It all started at my elementary school,” the German-born Stern explains, “where I was part of a program designed by Carl Orff. Part of that program required you to compose your own material, as a means of learning about music, so I’ve been doing it ever since.”
At seventeen, Stern formed her own acting company and toured Europe but was soon turning back to music. Trying to break into film scoring in Germany led nowhere. Stern then headed off to Boston’s Berklee College of Music and that, in turn, helped develop her interest in the guitar. She eventually moved to New York, playing in a number of rock and jazz bands before forming her own group with Bill Frisell and Paul Motion. From there it was just a matter of time before the labels came calling. Passport issued her first two well-regarded major releases, Clairvoyant and The Next Day, but from there she began hopscotching from label to label, often putting her music out herself. “It was difficult to get labels to agree with my vision,” she notes.
Eventually she decided to go out on her own for good, essentially when digital distribution started to take off. “In this way I’m able to realize my own vision, although when I first realized that I was the guy who had to do the marketing, I panicked,” she laughs. “But I’m now working on my eighteenth album, and feel that I’m doing this the way I should be.”
African influences have been detectable in her music for some time, but became overt in the explanatory 2007 album Africa. That sound is much in evidence – although in a markedly different manner -- on her new track, “Still Bleeding,” part of her forthcoming self-released Sabani EP. Sabani features a stripped-down trio: Stern on vocals, electric guitar and ngoni, a traditional lute from Mali that dates back hundreds of years and is the musical forebear of the banjo; Haruna Samake on the somewhat similar camela ngoni, and Mamadou Kone dit Prince on African percussion instruments calabash and tama. Recorded and mixed in Bamako, Mali, the EP consists of music composed by the trio, as opposed to the more full-blooded African sounds on Stern’s previous full-length efforts.
“I’ve become so intrigued by how African musicians and songwriters could base songs on different rhythmic patterns,” Stern says. “It’s all folk music – a lot of the traditional Mali music is from the griot tradition and goes back many years -- which has always interested me.”
Of being a part of SESAC, Stern says, “What really attracted me, and has kept me here, is that it’s small enough to be manageable – you don’t get lost – and they very much take a personal interest. They’re more cool, hip and fast than anybody else out there.”