A New Yorker born in Munich, Leni Stern has been digging into West African rhythms and textures for years, studying in Mali and Senegal, performing with the likes of Salif Keita, and working closely with Senegalese bassist Mamadou Ba and percussionist Alioune Faye since her 2013 album Jelell. As suggested by its title, 4 is her fourth collaboration with the pair; it’s her 22nd album overall since 1986.
The groove is the thing on 4, and nowhere more so than on “Habib,” with its tumbling percussion (showcased alone on the intro), rubbery interlocking bass lines and solo, and swerving synthesizer. Like other tracks here, it also benefits from Stern’s colorful thicket of guitars and stacked background vocals. And as a one-off bonus, it features a bluesy, liquid improvisation from her husband, fusion six-string ace Mike Stern.
Leo Genovese, the Argentina-born keyboardist best known for his work with Esperanza Spalding, considerably expands the trio’s sound palette everywhere. His Japanese-influenced “Japalema” thrives on swirling keys, a piercing guitar outing, and a fleet-fingered piano turn that changes the temperature of the tune, which further evolves in surprising directions. He also contributes “Zamba 264,” its synth banks and quick-shifting chord structure somewhat reminiscent of Joe Zawinul’s work with Weather Report and the Zawinul Syndicate.
Stern goes for something more laidback on “Amadeus,” a gentle, floaty ballad fronted by a melody built on intertwined guitar and wordless vocals. The similarly relaxed “Chartwell” tops a flickering soundscape with a lullaby-like theme. And she opens the album with the breezy, pop-minded, modulating “Lambar,” another showcase for Mamadou’s fluent electric bass work, Genovese’s creative synth ministrations, and the leader’s urgent guitar leads.