Back in the late 1970s, an aspiring young musician and stage actress emigrated from her native Germany to the United States. After her arrival, she enrolled at Boston’s famed Berklee College of Music to take up film scoring, but as the ‘80s set in, Leni Stern relocated to New York City and began establishing herself as a serious guitarist.
After spending the early part of that decade playing guitar in various rock and jazz bands, Leni went solo in 1983. Her efforts, during which she has worked with musicians like Bill Frisell, Dennis Chambers, Paul Motian and the late jazz saxophone great Michael Brecker, led to her being honored by Gibson guitars as Female Jazz Guitarist of the Year 5 consecutive times.
And as sure as she can fluently speak five languages, Leni has been a world traveler, as well, particularly to places like India, Peru, and the African nations of Kenya, Senegal, Madagascar and Mali. It was during her African visits that she explored the roots of much of the music she has played. In the process, Leni has diversified her sound to the point where she is joined in her current live shows by two New York-based musicians of Senegalese ancestry: bassist Mamadou Ba, who previously worked with the legendary Harry Belafonte, and percussionist Alioune Faye.
Recently, I asked Leni about her African visits, including how she survived a coup that happened during one such visit, as well as other topics like her early music and stage-acting work in Germany, and her many influences and inspirations. But I started by asking for her perspective on the Internet’s role as a game-changer for music.
GGM: First, Leni, given that you’ve been an independent professional musician for a third-of-a-century or so, going back to those days well before the Internet caught on, how much of an impact do you think the ‘Net has made on your music, as well as music in general?
Leni: The “net” has leveled the playing field. It has given artists an opportunity to shape their careers independent of the input of managers, labels and publishers. It has given us a chance to pursue our musical vision as we hear it, without the watering down that invariably ensues when you try to target a very large audience. It has also forced musicians to become conscious of the economic consequences of their musical decisions; in other words, we have all had to grow up a little.
GGM: Even though you first learned piano and then guitar in your youth, you eventually took up acting in your native Germany, and even formed your own acting company at age 17. What kinds of plays did your company stage?
Leni: We were very inspired by Bertolt Brecht and the new theater coming from America [such as] La MaMa and the Living Theater. We were also inspired by Antonin Artaud and Peter Brooks. We wrote our own plays and I was the musical director.
GGM: Did your first professional gig as a guitarist happen while you were attending Berklee?
Leni: My first professional gig was at a talent contest when I was 11. I played 12-string guitar and sang the Bob Dylan song “Like a Rolling Stone.” I won first prize.
GGM: Back in 1983, after you decided to go solo as well as front your own band, you and Mike, a guitarist in his own right, were booked for residencies at the long-established New York City jazz and blues hotspot, the 55 Bar. Looking back on that, would you consider those to have had an impact on your career?
Leni: Having a residency is really essential for a band. I was able to try out new material and new musicians in front of an audience every week. We got all the material for my CDs and tours ready that way. We also built up a loyal following.
GGM: As a front woman/bandleader, you originally recorded jazz instrumentals beginning in 1985, with the album Clairvoyant, but your first album in which you also recorded some vocals was not until 1995, with Words. What inspired you to supplement your already-established credentials as a guitarist with some singing?
Leni: Marvin Gaye, [blues guitarist] Robben Ford, Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Wonder, [Spanish Flamenco guitarist] Diego El Cigala, [Mali afro-pop singer] Salif Keita, Sting…all the great singers really made me want to sing and play guitar. It’s such a rush to sing, I love it! Larry John McNally inspired me a lot. We wrote songs together and he produced Black Guitar , which was my first vocal album. I learned a lot about writing lyrics from him. He wrote “Nobody’s Girl” for Bonnie Raitt. I love that song!
GGM: Your voice was described by a Boston journalist as a cross between singer/actress Marlene Dietrich and blues singer Billie Holiday. Were either of those two early 20th-century icons influential in your vocals?
Leni: I used to listen to Billie Holiday a lot when I still lived in Germany. Her voice is so personal! I also listened to all the great R&B singers like Gladys Knight, and rock singers like Sting.
“Leni has seized many a moment not just by
developing her own jazzy musical style,
but by also using her world-traveling experiences
to add that touch of diversifying fusion.”
GGM: As for your guitar playing, what artists, jazz or otherwise, influenced you in that category?
Leni: That list is so long. Bill Frisell, John McLaughlin and Mike Stern, my husband, make the top of it. I love George Benson and Jeff Beck, but I listen more to other instrumentalists, like piano players and horn players. Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hankock and Chick Corea; and Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
GGM: Of the guitars you have played, or are currently playing, which have been your favorites?
Leni: The Stratocaster is my favorite guitar. I play a gold one that Jay Black from the Fender custom shop made for me. I had him shave down the neck near the body a little. I don’t like when it gets too wide there, but you have to be careful. You can really mess up the neck doing that. I also have a real 1959 Hardtail Strat, but that guitar goes to the studio with me- not around town or on tour anymore. It has become so valuable and rare, I feel very protective of it. I also have some nice Telecasters and Gibson 335‘s, but my Gold Strat is my favorite.
GGM: How did your travels to Africa inspire you to extend your musical horizons through such albums from Africa back in 2007 to your most recent album, Jelell, which came out last fall?
Leni: We all know that the blues came from Africa on the slave ships. When i got invited to perform at the Festival in the Desert in Mali, I got to play with many wonderful African musicians that like me where camped out in the Sahara Desert. I got to experience the blues in its original form as played by master n’goni player Bassekou Kouyate and his band, Toumani Diabaté on the kora, and many groups that had come from all over Africa.
It’s hard to describe what happens to your soul when you sit under the desert sky and play the blues for hours and hours. One thing is for sure, you change, your guitar playing changes, the way you look at music changes. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to communicate with music when you can’t speak the language of the place you’re in, and the West African musicians understand us. They actually thought I was playing Malian music when I played the blues, and I guess that is historically correct.
I got a chance to play with many great African bands in the years that followed that first festival, Salif Keita , Baaba Maal, Toumani Diabaté, Ami Sacko and many others. All these new colors came out in the CDs I made during that time. Most of them were actually recorded in part, or completely in, Africa with many local musicians.
GGM: During your African ventures, you were introduced to a banjo-like instrument called an n’goni. How does its sound compare to banjos or guitars?
Leni: The n’goni, or challam, like it’s called in Senegal, is a mixture of a banjo sound and a nylon-string guitar. It has no frets, that’s very unique and expressive. It has a wooden body with a skin streched over it. There are 2 playing strings and 2 to 5 resonant strings. It is most often tuned F f (up 1 octave) [or] G C g (up 1 octave). The strings are made from fishing line. I amplify mine with a bottle-cap pick up.
GGM: When that coup broke out while you were right in the middle of recording in Mali nearly a couple of years ago, did you have any trouble leaving that country as you were heading back to New York City?
Leni: When the coup broke out there, the whole country was on lockdown. All the borders and airports where closed. It lasted a little over a week. First, there was a 24-hour curfew; after 3 days it got lifted to a nighttime curfew starting at 7 pm. I was stuck in my hotel room but managed to write a song, entitled “Smoke No Fire,” and to go to the studio and record and shoot a video, since I couldn’t leave, which kept me sane.
When I was able to leave, I was on the first plane out. It was real scary to drive through all the roadblocks to the airport, but I have a great crew in Mali, great friends. Even when all the stores and restaurants were closed, they brought me food and looked after me. It was awful to see a place that had become my second home sink into chaos and anarchy. Things seem to be improving now. I feel hopeful that I will be able to return soon.
GGM: My last question for you, Leni, concerns a more recent session you did, in which you recorded some guitar tracks for a New Jersey-based twin sister act, Nalani & Sarina. How did they find out about you, and what do you think of them?
Leni: Nalani and Sarina go to the same vocal coach as I. His name is Greg Drew, and he has coached many famous rock stars like Lenny Kravitz and Will Lee. His technique is absolutely awesome – you will never have to cancel a concert again for vocal trouble if you do what he says. He asked me to play on their CD, and in return they sang with my band at our CD release concert in New York, and charmed everyone. It’s such a pleasure to work with such talented new artists. I love them!
In the language of Senegal‘s Wolof people, “Jelell,” upon which the title of Leni’s most recent album is based, means “seize the moment.” And, as the decades have proven, Leni has seized many a moment not just by developing her own jazzy musical style, but by also using her world-traveling experiences to add that touch of diversifying fusion.