Leni Stern is a popular international Jazz Guitarist based out of New York. In this interview Leni shares with us her musical beginnings, the event that changed her personal and professional life and her quest to introduce the music of the World through Jazz. A truly inspiring read. Oh yeahand shes married to some guy named Mike:)
Interview by Lyle Robinson via phone 2006
“So I started purposely traveling to come up with new material and I had also always enjoyed playing with other people as I studied the music. You meet your teachers, and other musicians and you are already an improvising Jazz musician so it’s neat to play with them. So I slowly started involving all of those features into my projects. It’s just amazing, the World is so accessible. Everybody has frequent flyer miles and I think musicians have become the new ‘jet-setters'”.
JGL: Hi Leni. Before we begin, let me say thank you for speaking with Jazz Guitar Life.
LS: You’re welcome and thank you.
JGL: The first question I would like to ask before we get onto the more current events in your life is, for the few Jazz Guitar Life readers who may not be aware of who you are, who is Leni Stern?
LS: I am a guitar player and singer living in New York but I was born in Munich, Germany. I came to America actually to study Film Scoring because I worked as an actress and a musician in Munich. I worked in television and film because I was just in that scene and so I came to America to study at Berklee College of Music because they have a great program and I met Michael Stern while I was doing that…
JGL: Hmmmm…I think I’ve heard of him…
LS: LOL…actually I did go back to Germany but after a few years this inter-continental relationship just got too much and so I moved to America and then started to just play guitar. I don’t do much acting anymore but I do occasionally host a show for BET. But that’s about it for the acting right now because I am very busy playing guitar.
JGL: I’m sure you are. Do you miss the acting?
LS: Sometimes I do and you never know, if someone offered me a part, well…but right now it’s a lot of work to be a side-woman playing guitar and to have your own band playing so I don’t have the time to miss anything…lol.
JGL: Cool. We’ll that describes a bit about who you are. I guess more importantly from just being considered a guitar player back in the mid to late eighties you’ve had a blossoming in terms of finding your own voice instrumentally as well as physically. How did that come about?
LS: Well, back when I was in acting, I was already singing but just not in English. I felt a little uncomfortable when I first came to this country because of my accent but as I moved along English really became my first language. I didn’t want to be an interpreter of songs, even though lately I have been an interpreter of some songs. There is a difference being a composer and an author rather than interpreting other people’s songs. Look at Nancy Wilson who has done her own songs as well as standards. She is really a poet and a songwriter and I always thought that I too could be like that. It took a while to become comfortable with the English language but it came in a natural fashion because I collaborated with songwriters that wanted to incorporate some more Jazz harmonies, more complicated harmonic structures for their songs. And they came to me to work with me which started me writing words in that process which evolved into me writing my own songs and singing them.
JGL: What was the reaction when you “came out of the closet” as a singer?
LS: Surprise. Nobody knew I could sing because I only sang in Germany and the reaction was “Wow, what happened? Why didn’t you sing before?” And then my German friends would come here to see me and they would find it surprising that I am singing in English…lol. It’s funny but musicians would have a different reaction than the general audience. I think that people can relate easier to a human voice more than to the voice of let’s say a saxophone. So for the audience in general it was easier for them to connect to the music when someone was singing part of it. Some musicians felt it was a bigger shift than it was because there is still a big divide between instrumental music and vocal music and a lot of times in vocal music musicians don’t get a chance to express themselves as much. I think there was a certain concern in the beginning when I started singing that nobody would get to play any solos, but that’s not the way we play it. We still play the music the same way as before except I sing the melody now.
JGL: So your voice is basically just another line, another instrument…
LS: Yeah, it’s just another line. But I don’t, and I never have, followed a conservative, straight ahead Jazz format. Sometimes we just play my song because as a composer sometimes all you want to hear is what is just written and then you may want to vary it a bit. Actually, not much has actually changed except for the fact that we have gained a few people that may not have been into the music before. Jazz has a funny image in the world where people think they have to have a degree in music to understand it. I’ve always noticed that when people come to our shows they would say “You know, I don’t really like Jazz but I really like what you do”. I mean it’s just music but there are so many kinds of Jazz. It’s very hard to define what it is because it all ends up being a mixture of what you do. My music is very informed by funk music and by rock music because I am a guitar player and I feel that guitarists should always have a little bit of rock influence because in rock, guitar is the main instrument so there is a large rock vocabulary. Look at what my husband has done. He’s taken that rock vocabulary and applied it in a way that you can’t even describe as rock anymore, it’s just the voice of the guitar.
JGL: Exactly. And it’s also the voice of the individual expressing the music that may have had a major influence on them growing up. You can’t escape it because I feel that it somehow manages to filter into your playing whether you’re conscious of it or not.
LS: Well, it’s an attempt to describe the music that you do, because music with words can sometimes be elusive, so we have to use forms that we know to say “Oh yeah, that has a funk influence”, or that “Oh yeah, the composer listens to James Brown or Sly and the Family Stone”. You know, when you listen to some of Miles’ electric work or Sly’s groove, there’s not much difference. Or to extend it even further some Grateful Dead improvisation jams, because they were all influenced by each other. So there is a connection there in terms of form and really, you could play a Jazz song like a Jazz song in the style of the fifties, which is cool too. But the problem comes when we have to promote our CD’s and we ask “Where do I put this? Is it a Jazz record, is it a Folk record, is it a Funk record, is it a Rock record? Is it a contemporary Jazz record or a contemporary Rock record?”
JGL: Exactly. When I try and turn people on to different music or even my own music, I just end up giving people the CD and tell them to make up their own mind. At that point I think the music becomes the experience of the artist and the listener. It’s no longer defined by category but by the individual, so it becomes a Leni record, or a Lyle record, or a Mike record. Once people become accustomed to the personality of the artist I think that matters more than the particular style of music or the categorization of that style whatever it may be.
LS: Right. The great thing about Jazz is that it encourages the individualistic expression of your own voice, the creation of your own environment and style. That really is a part of Jazz but I have to say that lately what I have wanted to hear is one World Music instrument for lack of a better word, one instrument that is not tempered tuning, like we do on my record “Love Comes Quietly”. Or on some of the tracks on my new record I sent you which will be released in the New Year. Actually, I am on my way back to Africa to continue recording there. I’m recording with a lot of n’gonis, African instruments, scaled instruments that you could say are ancestors of the Banjo. Technically they are not tempered instruments so they have a different quality to their sound with a warmth to them, really quite beautiful and I’m experimenting with that on my next project. I started that on “Love Comes Quietly” and even on “Finally The Rain Has Come” where there is a lot of World Music influence from India, lots of Tablas and vocalists and in my writing I was influenced from what I got from India and the rhythms of Africa.
JGL: Speaking of “Love Comes Quietly” and the soon to be released new album, how did you find your way to this music? Embarrassingly I have to admit that I only knew you via your music during the eighties and was not aware of what you were doing in the nineties and the new millennium. Of course having done a bit of research on your career I find that you have gone through a number of personal transformations for lack of a better word and I am assuming that that has informed your present musical sensibility? Could you talk a bit about this?
LS: I think that having had cancer and surviving it has made me more reckless. I might have been more careful being called a Jazz artist and risked being called a “chick singer” or a James Taylor wannabe. I might have been more careful going out and deciding not to have a manager and starting a record label, but this is the music that I hear and you know what, I may die tomorrow so why don’t I record it today. That obviously comes out of a brush with death and that’s definitely what happened.
JGL: So your battle with cancer provided you with the means to go and make it on your own by giving you the power to leave your management and to leave the record label?
LS: Well…I guess they decided it was a mutual arrangement…lol…
JGL: I see…lol…a little arm-twisting from both parties…
LS: Well yeah…lol…a mutual choice. I chose to go in a direction that commercially didn’t exist before and the consensus was that I must have lost my mind somewhere along the way…lol…but you know, when you have a fifty year career in front of you, you listen to what people have to say, but when you may die next year you say “what do I care”. So what if the music industry thinks that this is a suicide mission or “what is the matter with her, now she wants to sing”, or “what is this now, Indian music? Is she Indian? Is she African? Oh wait, isn’t she German?” But you know, to break tradition is much easier when you realize that you are not here for ever and that life is very, very short and life should not be informed by marketing decisions. I mean, I really love all the people I have worked with and I respect their decisions but nobody wanted to get into an enterprise that was completely new and that no one had ever heard of that probably nobody would ever find. And when you go the entertainment route it’s a different world, but I am without a doubt extremely happy here.
JGL: I can imagine. How long has your record company been around?
LS: Oh, seven years at least. “Black Guitar” was the first record that I ever released myself. I must add that my European label which still distributes my stuff in Europe was always very much for my decision. And actually, my American label took me on as a partner after the second record as long as they didn’t have to pay me for the records and they distributed my records through the Parent group and Ryko Distribution. Actually “Black Guitar” is now distributed by Ryko Distribution as well. You know in a way it makes sense, if you make all the decisions you should pay for it.
JGL: Sure. It makes sense. So how are you promoting your music now? I notice that you have stuff on CD Baby and your website…
LS: I use the Internet a lot. The world has opened and you see more and more artists becoming independent because the Internet is really what most consumers go to and I am really happy to talk to you about this because we promote on CD Baby, we book through Sonic Bid although I still have a booking agent. The world has really changed but I still have a regular publicist. Once a new record first comes out we do much of the publicity is done through my website and MySpace and CD Baby.
JGL: Very cool. Have you been successful in getting your music into Europe and the Africa’s and other parts of the World?
LS: I’m actually negotiating my African distribution in September (2006). I’ve been in the business for a long time and I know a lot of people, and especially when you’re independent you can negotiate your own contract and details for release. My records will probably be released before the New Year in Europe and in Africa the same thing and I’m also negotiating with Japan at the same time. You know, it’s really nice when you make these deals because you recoup right away and then you can put the money in the next record.
JGL: I guess it’s a cyclical thing where the process repeats itself after every record…
LS: Exactly. But really you know, CD Baby and the Internet and iTunes, well CD Baby puts my music on over thirty sites so half of my income comes from downloads and purchases via the Internet. And it’s continuously growing to where it’s about sixty percent now. And the Internet makes it so enticing to buy stuff, I can never not buy anything from iTunes because 99 cents just doesn’t seem like money…lol…
JGL: lol…yeah I know. That’s their secret…lol…
LS: Actually we have a lot of Internet things going on and I have a little staff that work for me and place things on the Internet whereby a lot of little things amount to a bigger thing. This provides me with total creative freedom. I can do whatever I want.
JGL: That’s the beauty of it. I don’t know why more artists don’t “shuck” the large labels and take a chance going for it on their own…
LS: Well you know what, you have still “shucked” it to the companies if you got a finished product but just don’t hand over all the rights to something. Hire yourself a lawyer and let them deal with those kinds of things. I have a rule, I don’t sign anything that is longer than a page because anything over a page involves thievery. I mean if it’s over one page by a little then fine but you know what I mean, those book size contracts that you would have to wade through. That’s just an unnecessary waste of money.
JGL: Very true. In fact it’s usually one lawyer making work for other lawyers so that the billable hours can stack up…lol. But I really believe that now it is a level playing field, relatively speaking, for artists to get out there and get their music known and heard. Gone are the days when you had to beg to get signed only to have your music shelved…
LS: Oh God…I think when they started doing that they drove a lot of artists away. You work too hard on your music to have it signed and taken away by somebody else. If you want it done then you have to pay for it yourself.
JGL: Exactly. You mention on your site something about having “faith in ME”. And I think that is the key. Having that faith in oneself to bare yourself to the World and say “Hey, I have something that is unique and wonderful”, and the Internet and other areas of promotion provide each of us with the resources to pull it off. But you need that vision or desire first and foremost.
LS: Yes…and it’s also a better deal financially because you make your money and it’s yours right away. I mean you probably won’t make a million dollars like Norah Jones or my friends who wrote songs for her, you are not going to go buy houses with revenues from the songs. That’s the world that you are not in, although that world exists and that’s all well and good. But for me there’s more variety out there and it suits my nature to have pure creative freedom. After all, I made nine records for labels…
JGL: And are they still on the market and generating some kind of revenue for you?
LS: Well for the label they are…lol…
JGL: That’s the problem…
LS: Well I do get publishing money but for the records I make myself I get ten dollars and when you go with a record company you may make seven dollars or less. On CD Baby I make between six and ten dollars and they have seven of my records. My very first records the record company went under and I got out and bought the master. There’s no such thing as any record of mine that you can’t have. Actually, the first record Clairvoyance we stopped producing CD’s so you can only get it on iTunes which is kind of an incentive to go on iTunes to purchase music. By the way, that record is the one with Paul Motian and Bill Frisell.
JGL: I’m not sure if I have that one but I am holding a copy of one of your CD’s titled “The Next Day”…
LS: That’s my second one and I’m not sure if we have put that on iTunes yet, I’ll have to check. It’s an ongoing project to get them all on iTunes.
JGL: Actually I was just listening to “The Next Day” before I called you and I was reminded of a statement that you gave in a Guitar Player interview back in the 80’s, if I remember correctly, it’s almost like a Jim Hall type statement where you said that you realized early on that you may not end up with the kind of technique that a Michael Brecker has or your husband where you wouldn’t be able to whip off super quick bop lines. But that was ok because you were focusing on developing your own voice through your writing and improvisations. That statement made an impact on me because I had been going through the same kind of thoughts thinking that I was never going to be on par with cats like Bruce Forman or Joe Lavano but that was ok because I had something to say. But then the fear, for a lack of a better word, crept in and it was like well are people going to want to hear what I have to say if I can’t play like Bruce or Joe…
LS: There’s a lot to be said, and especially in recording, if you can come up with a strong melody. I mean, look at Wayne Shorter…
JGL: ‘Nuff said…
LS: Actually I made that statement 16 years ago and I have since then increased my speed and my vocabulary and if I need to I can slow down but at least I can play my melodies and burn if I have to in any situation. But let me tell you, a well played melody and a well played Blues lick is something I can get into more than just the burn.
JGL: Agreed. Let’s talk a bit about what is happening with you now. First off, I gotta tell you that I was really pleasantly surprised upon hearing your new material and it sounds really amazing. Obviously you have traveled a lot to various areas of the Planet that have influenced the direction that you are now heading into…
LS: Yes I have, but I want to say that I did that before on one of my very early records. There are Indian and African songs. There’s one called “Lights Out” with Didier Lockwood which is an African record. Didier collaborated with a lot of Africans and he knew about this crazy African violin that they play upside down and bow straight and well, it’s kind of hard to describe but he knew all those things. And ever since my first trip to Katmandu I’ve worked with Indian Raga’s and so has Bill Frisell because they have been improvising for four thousand years. So it has been great studying Indian music because they have great ways of teaching you how to improvise, they rock. Anybody can learn how to improvise if you do what they tell you to do. I mean it’s time consuming and everything but it’s really, really cool.
So I have always had the desire to travel and very early on I discovered, since I always traveled with my guitar ever since I was a child and has become a permanent attachment, I noticed that the tunes I wrote had a different quality to them. Which was very funny because I wasn’t aware of it at the time. Actually I write every morning which is a thing I do. I get up, have my coffee and write a song. So anyway, I would come back and I wouldn’t notice anything but my band would say “Wow, that sounds so African” or “This sounds so Asian” or “That sounds so weird” or “This sounds so different”. And I realized that you are very much informed by the music and the vibe and the sound of the language that is around you.
So I started purposely traveling to come up with new material and I had also always enjoyed playing with other people as I studied the music. You meet your teachers, and other musicians and you are already an improvising Jazz musician so it’s neat to play with them. So I slowly started involving all of those features into my projects. It’s just amazing, the World is so accessible. Everybody has frequent flyer miles and I think musicians have become the new “jet-setters”. You go on tour and then you have enough air miles to go to somewhere fabulous. And you can record and bring back tracks from wherever it is that you have gone. And instead of going to Florida you can do what I do which is to take your frequent flyer miles and go to Bamako Mali.
JGL: When you arrive at a destination do you already have contacts and a schedule set up?
LS: Yes I do. I have friends in Mali and I’ve been there twice already this year.
JGL: When you visit these places, how do you go about assimilating the musical landscape as it were? Do you meet musicians, jam and listen? Or do you try and become part of the scenery in a sense?
LS: I often go to festivals and in India and Africa I was invite to perform at the Festival in the Desert. And the last time I went to Morocco I met some musicians who recommended a festival so I went and played with all the musicians. This is how it begins a lot of times, you get exposure through a performance and then you hang out and then return. And it takes off from there as you develop musical relationships. Instead of just playing a festival and then going home I stay and write music and try and collaborate with the musicians that I meet there.
LS: I was supposed to do a single concert in the Desert but during the course of the festival I met all the musicians like Bassekou Kouyate and sat down and played guitar with them and we just hit it off so well. I Invited them first for one song and then I was like “you know what, let’s just play”. And then I said “well you know what, let’s go in the studio and record what we are doing”. And that’s pretty much how it happened. And the same with the Indian track on Love Comes Quietly “Reseke Bare Tore Nain”. I performed at the Bombay Jazz Festival with Louis Banks who is like the greatest Jazz Pianist in India. He’s played with Sarah Vaughn and everybody and he has a little studio in his house and I brought Dhanashree Pandit Rai into his studio and we were all working together anyway so that’s how that came about. Actually, the French Maison de la Culture in those countries, they have concert halls and I have been sponsored by them to perform with local musicians all in an interest of Cultural Diplomacy for peace and you know what? It really works. And I always like when my music has a social aspect to it.
JGL: Well said. What is the response to your music from these different cultures you visit? I mean I realize that there is obvious a group who know you and your music otherwise you may not be invited to these areas, but what about those who have never heard your music before?
LS: Well you know, people love American music all over the World and my music is seen as American music so they really like it a lot. And music is considered a universal language and I have had the experience when we can’t talk to each other, because unfortunately I don’t know speak a lot of those languages, I mean I can get by in Bambara and I can sort of hobble around in Hindi but my communication skills from my guitar are far superior so there is an understanding that happens because music is a language.
There is a little funny thing that happens because of the way I look. I’m a very white, very blonde girl with curly long hair that plays an electric guitar…lol…and there’s always this moment of “What the hell is this?” But it instantly disappears when we start playing together because they immediately recognize what this is and even though it looks very different than what they have seen before it sounds like something they can completely relate to very easily. Especially in India because as Jazz musicians we know how to improvise and as soon as we begin to improvise it’s like “Oh well, of course! Our shit is the same…” Especially in Africa as a guitar player because of the Blues connection, I mean all of your stuff works because it comes from there so it’s just like you are coming home and you just have to plug in and play. And that is much stronger than any cultural differences because the language of music is the strongest thing and everyone can relate to that. It doesn’t matter if you are a woman, or you’re white, or you speak their language very badly…lol…that’s so not important because of the fact that you can make music together.
JGL: That’s very cool. Let’s go back a little to your childhood. You mentioned earlier that you were never without your guitar when you were a child. How did you come across Jazz and what got you into playing?
LS. Growing up in Munich, Germany there was an American Army base and they had a great big band and also the ECM label originated in Munich and they would have concerts in Munich and like a lot of cultural things which have government subsidies they used to have concerts for a dollar. So for one dollar you could go see Dewey Redman or go see Paul Motian. So that was the thing to do and also there was also American radio for the American serviceman and that was the coolest radio station to listen to and you could hear Bop and American Pop as well as some of the English Rock stations that the Americans listened to. Munich was a very Americanized city and there was a lot of goodwill towards the Americans because the Americans historically liberated Germany keeping the Russians from conquering Germany. They were peacekeepers, and they were the ones that as a kid brought you chewing gum. They were the good guys and their music was cool. Actually, I had heard that during the war Jazz was kind of like a resistance music because Hitler was against anything Black. There was that story of Hitler leaving the Olympics because there was a Black runner. So people that were against fascism would like people of ethnic origin and Jazz sort of became a sign of the resistance because it was played by Black Americans. So there was always this traditional coolness about it and it still is somewhat more popular in Europe than here.
So there was a lot of music going on and I would go to all of these concerts and hang out with guys who played in bands. My brother had a John Mayall record and I first learned Rock and Blues songs but I quickly heard Ralph Towner and Keith Jarrett and John Abercrombie and I tried to find out how they played like that. Then I heard Wes Montgomery on the radio and I tried to figure out what were those other notes that these guys are playing and I found an American musician who was performing and he started teaching me and I started playing in bands.
JGL: There’s a great story I read somewhere on the Web where you had, after a concert, followed Ralph Towner to a restaurant (Leni laughs) and began to barrage him with a host of questions, but he was very gracious and answered your questions and even wrote out some exercises for you to work on.
LS: He did! But that’s not the end of the story. Years later there was a Swiss Guitar Festival that Ralph played at and I played at and the promoter hosted a lunch for all the performers. So I went to Ralph Towner and asked him “do you remember an annoying, young guitar player…lol…after a concert asking you to write out exercises?” He didn’t remember but I told him that I felt I should apologize. He was probably dead tired and just wanted to be alone and eat some Sauerkraut, not wanting to write down fingering exercises. But he said that when he was a young pianist, which he was, he went to a Herbie Hancock concert and was completely blown away so he figured out what hotel Herbie was staying at and what room he was in and called him in the middle of the night after the concert and introduced himself as a young pianist and he had a very long and gracious conversation with Herbie. So he felt there’s a tradition of calls in all hours of the night in all kinds of places…lol. He probably felt slightly embarrassed with his own behavior with Herbie and understood my own…lol.
JGL: That’s great and that’s the beauty of Jazz because if you are taking the time to learn this music then established musicians understand the struggle and act as mentors even if it’s just one question asked and answered.
LS: In Jazz a lot of information is passed on from one person to the next. It’s very much still an oral tradition. It’s great that we have books and recordings and videos that can preserve this music. When I go into the desert and see all these cultures vanish I just want to cry because it’s lost forever. It’s good to document things. Jazz has that element which comes down from its African roots passed from one person to the next.
JGL: Speaking of passing on this great music, as you mentioned earlier when you arrived in America to study film scoring at Berklee you got together with guitarist Bill Frisell. How did that come about? Did you know Bill prior to coming to Boston?
LS: No. He was playing with the Japanese trumpet player Tiger Okoshi. That band was kind of like the Weather Report of Boston and both Bill and Mike had played in that band. I was at a student party when I met Bill and I think he was in his last year at Berklee. He was outside jamming on an acoustic guitar and I heard him in passing and I recognized his tone and thought “What the hell?!”lol…I asked him right then and there if he was teaching. I loved his tone and I wanted to take some lessons from him to figure out how to do that, to mix my blues and rock roots with Jazz and interesting lines because it’s a matter of sound and how you get that sound. So that’s how I started studying with Bill Frisell and he introduced me to Michael.
JGL: And the rest is history…lol.
LS: Oh yeah
JGL: Do you still keep up the practice routine nowadays?
LS: Absolutely, absolutely.
JGL: What kinds of things are you working on these days?
LS: I’m working on improvising with hexatonic scales which is an application of the twelve tone system to major scales and minor scales. So you can use that kind of structure, the row and the modes to organize your improvising. It’s very characteristic and sounds great. I’ve also gone back to practicing the raga, paying special attention to the rhythmic cycles and I’m working on my vocal technique in that area as well. Plus I’m always working on my own projects and I have to make sure that each project doesn’t cut into my practicing time.
JGL: Out of curiosity, do you and Michael sit around and jam?
LS: Yes we do.
JGL: Cool. Well, given your schedule I think we’re going to wrap this up. It was wonderful talking to you this morning and I thank you for taking time to speak with Jazz Guitar Life.
LS: Thank you. It was great talking to you as well. It was more like a conversation than an interview. Have a great morning.
To know more about Leni, check out her website at www.lenistern.com