Perhaps like a lot of jazz guitar fans, I came to Leni Stern by way of her husband Mike, the owner of the so-called “Chops of Doom.” But with no Internet as a guide (this was the late 1980s), my method of discovery was to spend far too many hours poking through the jazz bins at Tower Records. I see the name “Stern” on the front cover, and the names Bob Berg (the late saxophonist often played in Mike’s group) and Paul Motian, and it was very easy to take a chance. The album was 1987′s The Next Day. It was a relatively straight up jazz affair with a little bit of funk thrown in, with guitarist Hiram Bullock playing guitar on one track.
In the intervening years guitarist/composer Leni Stern has discovered the music of Africa. This is no watered down jazz with tinges of percussion or choppy guitar rhythms tossed in, with multi-colored packing and sold as “World Music.” No Jelell is a full-on hybrid, combining jazz and blues sensibilities with the dance rhythms and soul of her (musically) adopted nation of Senegal.
Stern’s trio (the leader contributes electric guitar, n’goni, and vocals, in a sort of Marianne Faithful-lite way) is rounded out by bassist Mamadou Ba and percussionist Alioune Faye. Extra percussion was provided by an ensemble of five Sabar players — Alioune Faye’s brothers.
Recorded in Dakar, Senagal, Jelell practically bubbles with joyous enthusiasm. There are tunes that lean more toward funk, “Gnat Yone (How Many Times)” has Stern’s blues-infused guitar lines fitting in between her singing while on “Demal Tadi (Lights Out)” her guitar sets up a call and response of sorts with a sung chorus. And then there are gorgeous instrumentals, my favorite being “Babacar,” with Stern’s guitar laying down stabbing counterpoint to the rubbery (read: fun) bass line.
In many ways, the percussion is the star of the show here. Songs like “Dimbali Ma (Save Me)” are built on an insistent drum pattern that informs the overall melodic content just as much as the other instruments. Here and elsewhere, this frameworks seems to really inspire both Stern and Faye, who occasionally step outside of ensemble play to deliver some wicked passages. On “Bubbles,” the pair are absolutely locked in with their unison play, which later drifts back to Stern soloing over Faye’s comping. It’s jazz…and it’s not…and really, who cares what it’s called. “Fantastic” will suffice.
Yeah, I do miss those jazz bins at Tower Records. They’re long gone, but at least I can thank them for the many contributions to my musical world. Would I have discovered Leni Stern without them? I’d like to think so, because albums like Jelell are just too compelling to be ignored.