Composer, guitarist, and vocalist Leni Stern grew up in Germany on Bach and Mozart. Her early albums, recorded in the late ’80s after she came to the States to study jazz, featured top-shelf colleagues like Paul Motian, Bill Frisell, and Larry Willis. But about 15 years ago she fell under the sway of West African music, which has informed all of her subsequent projects. Dance features her longtime Senegalese-born rhythm section of electric bassist Mamadou Ba and Alioune Faye on percussion (primarily the goblet djembe drum). For the second straight album, Argentinian keyboardist Leo Genovese (Esperanza Spalding, Jack DeJohnette) rounds out the core quartet.
Dance is a title with elastic connotations, nodding to what Stern calls the “joy and resilience” of creating and recording music in pandemic 2020. Intensity seems to gradually escalate both within the songs and as the album evolves, showcased via a brisk braid of twirling syncopation and spooled melody, engagements that sparkle instead of hurry. After an opening “Prayer,” the compositional context is joyous: Stern’s paean to New York’s diversity (“Aljouma,” or “Friday”); Ba’s shout-out to a distant forefather who was a key figure in Senegalese history (“Maba”); Genovese’s “Kani,” or “Hot Pepper”; and celebrations of the energy of children (“Khale”) and birds (“Kono”). Not surprisingly, the most danceable number is a traditional West African griot tune titled “Daouda Sane.”
For all the hubbub, Dance is a soothing experience, perhaps because Stern guides the program with such calm command. Her pearly-toned guitar passages are dappled and absorbed into the essence of the rhythms. Her vocals, solo or in chorus, never overreach. Her use of the banjo-like n’goni—occasionally in tandem with her longtime friend from Salif Keita’s band, Haruna Samake, on the smaller kamele n’goni—displays a genuine kinship with the traditions of West Africa, without denying her own roots. All of it helps make Dance a marvelous musical meld that doesn’t need to strain for distinction.