January 1, 1970Just one story this week, a profile of jazz guitarist Leni Stern and her evolution into a singer-songwriter.
(A couple of new baby Abey pics on the newsletter sectioin of the website, though -- including some from his first day of school.)
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Leni Stern has evolved into a skilled singer-songwriter
By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | July 9, 2004
Leni Stern bursts out laughing when asked what her husband, stellar jazz guitarist Mike Stern, had to say as she began her late-1990s metamorphosis from jazz guitarist to jazz/ folk/ world music singer-songwriter. "Oh God," she recalls him saying. "I never wanted to be married to a chick singer."
Like it or not, her past several CDs have established Leni Stern, 52, as a gifted singer-songwriter with a wide-ranging sensibility and sophisticated guitar and harmonic chops. That's especially evident on her new CD, "When Evening Falls," which Stern, joined by bassist Paul Socolow and drummer Brannen Temple, will be drawing from heavily in two sets on Wednesday at Scullers.
"When Evening Falls" resulted, in part, from Stern's recent travels to Africa (the tunes "House on a Hill" and "Oje Mama"), India ("Abke Hum Bichere," on which she is joined by her Indian voice teacher, Dhanashree Pandit Rai), and New Orleans (the infectiously funky "Ice Cold Water $1").
But her musical journey began years ago in Munich, where she studied classical piano as a child, added classical guitar as a young teen, and became a jazz devotee by attending cheap concerts put on by Munich-based jazz label ECM.
Her early jazz heroes, she recalls during a phone call from New York, included Keith Jarrett ("I always said I wanted to do on guitar what Keith Jarrett did on piano"), Pat Metheny ("He had a way of playing that I could see myself do"), and the guitarist and pianist Ralph Towner. (She remembers once following him into a restaurant after a concert, squeezing into a booth beside him, and badgering him with questions about guitar technique. He actually scribbled down exercises for her.)
Meanwhile, she'd begun making inroads into other art forms: launching an avant-garde theater troupe with friends, acting, singing, and composing film scores. It was the money she made on two film scores that brought her to the United States. "I thought, 'Either I buy a Mercedes or I go to Berklee College of Music and study film scoring,' " she says.
She arrived at Berklee in 1977 and talked a shy recent graduate named Bill Frisell into supplementing her film-scoring studies with private lessons on guitar. She wanted to learn how to play an authentic funk groove.
"That was such an American thing," she says. "I thought that would just freak everybody out if I would come home from America and play some honest-to-God James Brown rhythm guitar."
Frisell himself, she says, was "a hell of a funk player," but he insisted she come with him to a Boston club to hear his best friend, whom Frisell billed as a god of the Telecaster. That was how she met Mike Stern. They moved in together not long afterward, married, and moved to New York when Miles Davis hired Mike in 1980.
It took another decade and a half for Leni Stern to get around to writing lyrics and singing. But she didn't write film scores, either. Instead, she took Frisell's advice and got busy playing club dates and recording with her own bands, among them an early trio with Frisell and veteran drummer Paul Motian. It wasn't until she began collaborating on a project with Larry John McNally — whose songs have been recorded by Bonnie Raitt, Don Henley, and others — that Stern began experimenting with writing songs of her own.
"When I first came here," she explains, "I felt I couldn't sing in English because I wasn't familiar with the language enough and lacked that certain something that was the thing that got [to] me in singers."
That began changing when she noticed McNally scribbling down phrases of hers in a notebook and asked what he was doing. "He said, `Because you're from another country, you use different images that are unusual and nice.'" He suggested she try writing lyrics herself. Five CDs later, she's a bona fide singer-songwriter. On the new disc, the traces of her German accent are thoroughly submerged in the Rickie Lee Jones-like slow drawl of "Ice Cold Water $1," the contemporary-folkishness of "Let Me Fly," the quietly affecting cover of "I'll Be Seeing You."
Bassist Socolow, who met Stern in Boston in the '70s, says he isn't surprised by either Stern's emergence as a singer-songwriter or the way she varies her phrasing from song to song.
"She had a career as an actress before she was a musician," he says. "Now that there are vocals and she's telling a story, she gets into the spirit of the narrative. The song itself tells her how it wants to be sung."
Berklee abroad: A dozen Berklee College of Music professors are in Perugia, Italy, taking part in the 19th Berklee Summer School at Umbria Jazz Clinics, which run July 6-18. More than 250 students from all over Europe are expected to flock to the clinics, which run concurrently with the Umbria Jazz Festival. Guest instructors this year include Michel Camilo, Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez, and Berklee's Joe Lovano, all of whom headline the festival.
Leni Stern performs at Scullers on Wednesday at 8 and 10 p.m. Tickets $18. Call 617-562-4111.
© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company