October 31, 1998 Jazz - Blues Notes column by Steve Graybow
Leni Stern Gathers A Folk Jazz-Tinted 'Recollection'
Journeywoman: Two years ago, guitarist Leni Stern decided to form her own record label. "With all the media available, the computers, the online record stores, it's opened up a lot of opportunities for independent artists and labels," explains the ebullient Stern. "As an artist, it is nice to see the product through from the beginning to end. I have a say in the music, the packaging, and the way my music is marketed. Simply, I have control."
The first release on Lent Stern Recordings (LSR) was 1997's "Black Guitar." It was a first for Stern in more ways than one, in that it was also her first album to feature predominantly vocal, folk-influenced songs. "I think every guitarist likes to sit down and sing with their instrument," she explains. "It is also a way to get closer to your listener. It's more of a direct conversation because you are expressing something, addressing the subject of your songs in a very direct way."
"Recollection" Stern's latest outing (due Tuesday  from LSR) is a compilation of tracks culled from her past 13 years as a recording artist. Several instruments that originally appeared on the Lipstick and Enja labels are featured along new material recorded specifically for the project. True to her indie aesthetic, Stern fills the package with her own extensive liner notes, providing remarkably candid insight into the often fragile, emotionally charged stories behind her music. "I always liked to sing the blues," explains Stern. "I'm German, and Germans have an incredible fondness for the blues. But since my life experience is so different from that of [blues man] Lightnin' Hopkins, I sing blues that reflect my own life and generation." Those reflections include meditations on Stern's childhood in Germany, where she grew up just miles from the remains of the Dachau concentration camp, and instrumentals that reflect her battle with breast cancer a number of years ago. Stern's voice perfectly compliments her guitar; both are equally clear-toned, honest and direct. "Somebody recently called my music 'folk jazz' and I liked that," Stern relates. "I always thought that folk music got its name because it was music for the folks, for the people. I think jazz used to be that, but we've gotten away from that. Hopefully, what I'm doing [with my music and with the label] is a move away from the kind of huge mega-stardom that jazz really doesn't lend itself to." Among Stern's collaborators are Paul Motion, Bill Frisell, and vocalist/songwriter Larry John McNally. Saxophonist Dave Binney, a member of Stern's current band, solos with a probing lyricism on several new tracks, adding further depth to the guitarist's playing and song craft. "I struggled with the idea of a compilation album for sometime," Stern explains, with a hint of lingering reluctance. "But after listening back to the material, I realized that it was in many ways a tribute to not only where I've been in my life, but more importantly to great musicians I've befriended and played with."
Ultimately "Recollection" chronicles both an artistic and a personal journey, allowing the listener to share in Stern's joy of self-expression and musical interaction. "I hope that having my own label and control over my musical direction will bring me even closer to my listeners," she says. "I encourage the fans to E-mail their comments and feedback. I want my audience to be as much a part of the music as possible." Stern will be on tour throughout the remainder of the year, in addition to her almost-weekly gig at New York's 55 Bar. Look for her to host a jazz guitar panel at this year's Jazz-Times convention.