You never know whom you're gonna encounter at a Pasadena golf course, but a guitarist from Bavaria and a bassist and a drummer from Senegal rank low on the probability scale. Their convocation was realized via a guitarist from the San Fernando Valley, though, so, y'know, music unites.
The union of improbabilities and the international scope qualify among the many reasons to catch Leni Stern the couple of times per year she hits SoCal, but this occasion adds a layer of Chandleresque mystery. You drive winding roads along a scenic South Pasadena ravine. You get lost and double back, arriving at Arroyo Seco Golf Course. You pick up your sandwich and booze from the functional café. Just off the putting green, you enter a bare-bones room with a few chairs, tiny tables, and a red velour curtain that looks like a magician's backdrop.
The magic starts with "If I Were Crazy," its plucky African Strat/bass unison riff followed by Mamadou Ba's blazing bass solo – this lanky watcher requires no warm-up. Stern finds her high vocal range and strokes entirely different guitar patterns behind Ba and the happy-swatting hand-drum solo of Alioune Faye.
Stern's new "Get Together" has a jerky rhythm and a zesty bridge; her solo is a complementary melody in itself, and when Faye launches his drum storm she pitches in on calabash, her earthy slaps accented by the metallic click of a ring on her hand.
Stern introduces her "favorite guitarist" (sorry, Mike), shortbrim-hatted Adam Levy, and they build up a display of jumpy riddim and tangled interplay – Levy full & fluid, Stern cutting, wide-ranging and subtly inflected. Put these two in a DMV and they could create a mood.
No point in spelling out every detail of "Tuareg Dance," "Mercy," "Thief in the Night," "Still Bleeding" or "The Cat Has Stolen the Moon," but amid all the aching balladry and ribcage-rattling beatdown, a few things stand out in memory. Like the way Levy's mischievous string bends exquisitely torture the scales. Like Ba's use of an electronic octave effect to give his improvisations a ghost dimension. Like Faye's wide smile as he disrupts the molecules of his sturdy skins. Like black-clad Stern's vigorous rattle shaking, soulful n'goni fingerwork and eyes-closed vocal star search, and the African scene she describes when fishermen dumped their whole day's catch rather than accept the price the middlemen were offering. Not to mention the occasional mistakes, delectable because they show that this music is bursting fresh from the players' hearts and hands, never to be repeated. Some improvisers play slicker; no one plays better.
A local couple, regulars at this hidden den, approach me at the set break after noticing my notebook. Expressing admiration for Ba's rapidly articulate note-shaping and amazement at the whole presentation, they wonder why Leni Stern is not a little more famous. I can't answer that.