Learning, learning. Leni Stern wants to know and grow and hoe that row. Her thirst has pulled her all over Africa, India and Asia to absorb the rhythms, the scales, the feelings into her voice and her electric guitar, to make herself into that universal translator in the pink capris. In a way, she’s learned to learn.
“I was always a bad student,” says Stern, brow knit and lips pursed as if remembering rapped knuckles in Catholic school back in her native Bavaria. “I have a really emotional connection with music that makes me hard to teach. Because it’s . . .” She lets go of a laugh, high and piercing. “It’s personal!”
Personal, yeah, but Stern didn’t shut herself up in a cave to plumb her soul; she kicked open all the doors. It seems she can be Leni only by plugging in the many natural connectors that stick out of her, much like her hair — always going in some stray direction. In chemistry, they call that polyvalent bonding. New molecules form every day.
“Wherever you are, the place makes the music sound different,” she thinks. “Because you are the instrument.”
Stern, who’s known mainly as a jazz artist, has reconstituted herself in amazing ways over the past decade. The process has had much to do with breast cancer — surviving it, loving others who did not survive, recognizing that, hey, we’ve got things to do here. Friends in Nepal said confronting her own demise was a blessing.
“They told me, ‘Now you get free of the feel of death. And should you survive, you’ll be a much happier person.’ ”
Having gotten hitched to American fusion-guitar prince Mike Stern after a rather high-profile career on the German stage, the former Magdalena (Leni) Thora earned her oats through most of the ’80s and ’90s stirring up atmospheric, sometimes funky Strat sounds with the likes of Bill Frisell and Paul Motian. Then, spinning outward from her collision with mortality, she rediscovered her voice (literally), adding vocals to her tool kit. “Things need to be spoken about,” she says, “to be in the consciousness of everybody.” Anyway, she ain’t the silent type.
Different thoughts emerged, borne by Stern’s delicately teetering vocal melodies, which cling in the head like burrs, but not as scratchy. There were heart-wringing words of hope after an Italian terrorist explosion, flowing within the extended orchestration of “I See Your Face” (2000’s Kindness of Strangers). There were the polar expressions of “Love Everyone” and “Where Is God?” (2002’s Finally the Rain Has Come). There was a trembling flashback to a former addiction on “Dancin’ With the Devil” (2004’s When Evening Falls). When she sings and when she cuts her guitar loose on untracked mountainsides, the distinction between art and artist gets lost. Music isn’t what she does, it’s what she is.
Which has a lot to do with where she’s been. Asked to draw some lines between her music and her travels, Stern lists a bunch of raga-based songs, and names compositions that came directly out of her knuckles being gently rapped — in Naga, India; in Cambodia and Thailand; among the Samburu tribe of Kenya; and among the Tuareg tribe of West Africa. She picks up languages pretty easily, but the music, she says, is like learning to walk again. Exhilarating effort.
Stern’s insinuating new Love Comes Quietly, the most varied album she’s ever done, wafts a pronounced African aroma amid the sensually inflected strains of her guitar. A hesitation beat that might remind you of its Jamaican descendants prods “10,000 Butterflies,” a prayer in support of refugees; its almost despairing lyrics are balanced by a hopeful musical environment. The dancing casbah chorus of “Inshaallah,” about a woman, her camels, her rifle and the desert, might become your mind’s constant soundtrack. Three colorful instrumentals softly convey a day’s baking heat fading into sunset.
The city also finds its place — the urban madness of Stern’s Manhattan home shadows the menacing “Beauty Queen”; the street jugglers and magicians of “Have Faith in Me” reflect the smile that comes so easily to her face. Further abroad, the way the raga-derived “Love Comes Quietly” tiptoes in and out, sexy and insistent, you’d almost think it was a dream; Stern is at her finest here. That’s one of the things she says, actually: that in the state between waking and sleeping, we come to know ourselves.
Stern’s itinerary this year has included a collaboration in Mali with string player Bassekou Kouyate, and a Gnawa trance-music festival in Morocco. Expect new fruit from these seeds. So much of this “world” music has religious connections, though — doesn’t a German of no particular faith feel uncomfortable sometimes? A previous Moroccan lila (healing jam-ceremony) was one of the few times she can remember, “not because of anything that was actually happening, but because I knew that the participants would eventually use their daggers to cut themselves and go into a trance.”
Obviously I’m a fan, and Stern puts up with my questions, so I catch up with her whenever she’s in L.A. I’ve collected a few mental snapshots.
1) Playing the Baked Potato in Studio City, Stern is deep in a solo, her eyes closed with an expression of complete involvement; behind her is the very sensitive and thoroughly amazing Texas drummer Brannen Temple. Some of her notes come from especially interesting places — mistakes, some would call them; I think of them as inspirations. Listening, I notice that I’m breathing more deeply. Later I ask how she feels about taking chances. “Maybe I should be a little more cautious,” she says. “But it’s a conversation. Sometimes with Brannen, it’s go-go boing-boing . . . you throw caution to the wind. He has a thing. He understands the guitar, he really does. And the people that play it.”
2) Stern is having an idea session at her hotel with songwriter Larry John McNally, with whom she’s collaborated in the past; she still likes to bounce ideas off him. She’s working on “The Road to Hell,” a lazy blues with a twisty riff that will end up on Love Comes Quietly. He suggests switching a couple of words for rhythm, and she likes that. Then he wonders if she should change the lyric about Canal Street; many listeners won’t know where that is. “The song needs to be in New Orleans,” says Stern. “Even if people don’t know it, they’ll feel it.”
3) Stern isn’t imposing, but she’s studied Shaolin martial arts, and she’s strong — look at the way the Tibetan character tattooed on her left arm ripples when she heaves her amp onto the stage. Some help with the effects case? Sure. But I get the feeling she’d really rather lug it all herself. It’s just one of the things she does.
4) Stern has ordered Japanese eggplant and guacamole: She needs to watch her carb intake since the family diabetes flared up a couple of years ago. The food comes, and she doesn’t even have to taste it; we’re in America. She grabs a bottle of Tabasco. Turns it upside down. And dumps it all over everything.
Leni Stern, Sat., July 22, 7:30 p.m. at Genghis Cohen, 740 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A.