It shouldn’t be a surprise that Leni Stern is still making great music, but sometimes it takes a bit of a nudge to make you realize it. Her career is far from new, she’s hopped her fair share of genres, and she’s put out new music every 1-2 years for the last 28, so it’s not unfair to view her new record, Jelell, with the same slight trepidation with which one might approach a new record from Amadou and Mariam, Neil Young, or any other musical journeyman who, in the course of their long and varied career, has held your ear as often as they’ve lost it. But if the first two singles from Jelell are any indication, that reticence is highly misplaced.
“Demal Tedi” is seductive. The song begins with a slow fade-up on a rocking-chair rhythm that launches the listener straight into a jazzy groove that bolsters both the multi-tracked whisper of Stern’s vocals and her slick guitar licks. That said, the most impressive aspect of this song is definitely the arrangement. While the density of the track feels fairly consistent throughout, that is only due to the fact that instruments weave in and out of this composition so tastefully that you might not notice their movement at all. This track features discordant tone clusters on the organ, breezy synthesizers, and a heavy drum solo, but even with a dedicated listen, it's easy to miss these individual features as they are gently subsumed into the greater whole. It’s just that smooth.
The title track, “Jelell”, might be the perfect blend between jazz and sabar percussion. The tonality is unmistakably that of American jazz, but embedded in the spare intensity of Mbalax. In the middle you'll find big, sticky bass lines, stirring group chants, and stinging wah-wah electric guitars that bridge the gap. This one veers closer to the seriously dangerous Cheesy World Music Zone, but smartly keeps things pretty brief and peppy, providing just enough anthem to wet the appetite without overwhelming the senses. Also, the slap-bass solo is mercifully short, which is almost always a virtue, unless it’s really not.
Jelell is out November 26th on Stern’s own record label.