Leni Stern is writing out her set lists at a table beside the stage. "I made such nice lists," she mutters to bassist Mamadou Ba, "and then I left them at the hotel."
With Ba in the band for several years now, they hardly need a map. I talked to Ba before the show, and learned that the tall & slim 50-year-old Senegalian (he looks 35) played with Harry Belafonte for 10 years; his delicate right-hand fingerwork and thumb popping are mostly self-taught from observing fusion heroes such as Marcus Miller; and like Stones fans who eventually worked back to Muddy Waters, he rediscovered his African folk roots later in life. I hardly recognized him tonight in his short-billed fedora, heavy bookworm specs and Converse tennies.
Stern sports loose black leatherette pants and four recent tattoos, which she showed off to friends earlier; the one on her right calf reads "Focus" in Japanese, no doubt to center her when she's squatting on the floor of a Malian schoolhouse, showing n'goni riffs to the local kids.
She'll save the n'goni (sorta like a uke or mandolin) until later. She tunes her old Strat, strums a soft chord and drifts into "Baonaan," a rain/love song from her trio's current "Jellel," punctuated by perky stop-start unisons with Ba. The trio has augmented regular hand drummer Alioune Faye with frequent collaborator Kofo the Wonderman on talking drum, and the thumpers' smiles, eye contact and excited interplay show how much they dig the teamwork. The first set focuses on more new stuff -- "Jellel," "Bubbles," "If I Were Crazy" and Ba's signature Arabic-flavored hope instrumental, "Babacar" -- before closing with what has become Stern's theme song for the last decade, the funky "On the Outside" ("Don't try to cage me in, I'm fine where I have always been").
Stern's voice is soothing, but her fingers are on fire. She lets sparks of Albert Collins, Eric Clapton and Jerry Garcia pour through her, shaded with sinewy femininity, challenged by the thrilling chromatic modes she's been expanding on for a few years, and interspersed with harsh chordal bursts. Not many musicians dance this close to the edge, which is what makes Stern's live shows such adventures.
Between sets, Stern greets the faithful and poses for a snap with friend Esperanza Spalding, whose famous hair explosion is tied back asymmetrically tonight.
The second set spreads Stern's history around and widens the sound field with a couple of guest guitarists. Musicians Institute wheel Beth Marlis plugs in for the pensive "City Sing for Me" (from Stern's groundbreaking 1997 "Black Guitar") and tunes in with dead-on feel to some trebly funk/soul/reggae riddims (Stern's "Spirit in the Water" is in there someplace).
When omnipresent industry ax (and friend of Mike Stern) Jeff Richman takes over the old Fender Twin amp, Leni switches to percussive high plucking on n'goni and the drummers rock into a heavier thud groove. Richman echoes the chromatic stuff with a bit more restraint, dropping in sharp ping harmonics and bringing a bit more fusion tradition to the proceedings, though he adapts to every variation as Stern gets emotional with "Still Bleeding," darkly playful with "The Cat Has Stolen the Moon" and urgently plaintive with the Afro-reggae waltz "Save Me."
Stern rips a twisting, terrifying Strat lead before grabbing the n'goni again; she slings that aside and slaps into a vigorous drum jam. She's got more energy at the end than at the beginning, and the band has an early flight tomorrow. Well, don't become a musician if you like to sleep.
PHOTOS BY FUZZY BURG.