April 9th, 2008
Artist: Lionel Loueke
Label: Blue Note Records
Catalogue No: 12791
Since 2002, guitarist Lionel Loueke has been drawing the attention of jazz fans and concert-goers alike. That was the year he joined Terence Blanchard’s band, and the group went on to record two successful albums, Bounce (2003) and Flow (2005). Since then he has recorded two albums under his own name, including Virgin Forest (2007), and one with bassist Massimo Biolcati and drummer Ferenc Nemeth (they would eventually become members of Loueke’s regular trio). In 2007 he performed a solo gig at the Bonaroo Music and Arts Festival’s Somethin’ Else Jazz Club. But perhaps his greatest achievement has been performing as a member of Herbie Hancock’s band (Hancock’s Grammy winning 2007 release River: The Joni Letters features Loueke on guitar). Being recruited by a musician who has been on top for forty years is definitely a testament of the skill Loueke possesses.
March of 2008 marked the next big step for Lionel Louke, when Blue Note records released his major label debut Karibu. This album combines many influences from the eclectic tastes and diversified experiences of Louke. Growing up in Benin, Louke became aquaninted with traditional African styles as well as Afro-Pop music. He eventually became exposed to George Benson and desired to incorporate jazz into his playing. Deciding that he wanted to formally study music, he then went to the National Institute of Art in the Ivory Coast and then on to Paris to study at the American School of Modern Music.
Many African sounds can be heard in Loueke’s music. The tongue clicking and bouncing rhythms are dead giveaways of his African roots, while the advanced harmonies and refined forms demonstrate his musical education as well as his fondness for and fluency in jazz. Karibu finds him in the company of his aforementioned regular trio. They play as if they share a brainwave. Many of the tunes are in odd meters but they never feel or sound like it. The interplay between the members of the trio makes even a deranged meter such as 17/4 seem completely danceable. This stability is not hurt by the two guest artists either. How could it be, when the guests on the album are the great jazz men Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. They each play a tune with the trio and both contribute to a quintet number.
The album opens with the title track, “Karibu,” which can be felt in two but there is a more complex structure underlying that basic beat. The rhythms are the most prominent part of this piece. The melody is very bouncy and the rhythm section supports Louke very well as he displays his George Benson influence by singing along in a falsetto voice as he solos and even as he plays the melody. The many harmonic twists that he navigates with his instrument and voice during his solo prove that this man is truly playing what he hears. The bass solo from Bialcoti is melodic and retains the groove even after the other two members leave him unaccompanied. After the solo the opening melody is reprised in full, even with the Methenyesque opening segment.
“Seven Teens” is a tune that features the 17/4 meter as well as pianist Herbie Hancock (the work was written while Louke was on tour with Hancock). Without taking the time to count the beats one would never guess that this is an odd meter. The piece feels very natural when played by this group. Even when it switches to unaccompanied sections and sections that sound free in general, there is a subtle groove churning underneath the interplay. Hancock’s solo is brilliant. He plays some very dense harmonic ideas but they fit the groove so well that the dissonance or tone clusters never stand out in any way but a good one. At 4:05 into the track, the listener can hear one member of the group shout “Woo” as if they are urging Hancock on. After the piano solo there is a section that is for general interplay/drum feature. It’s hard to label it one or the other because while the drums are the prominent instrument, the other three men are contributing equally. The piece closes with some strong rhythmic playing from Loueke and a restatement of the melody.
“Skylark” is a standard written by Bloomington’s own Hoagy Carmichael. This treatment is beautiful and fresh. Louke solos beautifuly and melodically. Once again his vocals can be heard accompanying his playing. Bialcoti contributes a melodic solo as well, and the interplay between him and Nemeth is akin to that of Scott La Faro and Paul Motian. Reinterpretations such as this one are the reason musicians continue to play standards that are decades old.
The next track “Zala” is not a particularly memorable melody but the arrangement’s shifting of moods and the trio’s interpretation of Loueke’s writing make it worth the listen. One can hear the sophisticated soloing of Loueke accompanied by his falsetto once again on this track.
“Naima” is another reinterpretation. This time Louke draws upon the John Coltrane repertoire and sax man Wayne Shorter. The opening is filled with sounds. Loueke starts by playing percussion on his guitar and then strums the strings behind the nut for a high pitched ringing sound. The group eventually settles into a rocking half time groove. Shorter doesn’t waste any time. After making his first statement he starts breathing new life into the fifty year old tune. Following his blowing is a section that relies on group interplay. Then Shorter takes the lead again. Eventually they restate the head and play it out with sparse playing from the rhythm section.
“Benny’s Tune” features many of the same elements found elsewhere one the album. The greatest difference, though, is the contrast between the melody and backing rhythms. They alternate from being together to seeming as though they are in a conscious fight. This effect makes the compostions interesting. The fact that Terence Blanchard has made this a part of his live repertoire is a testament that this piece may be one of Loueke’s stronger tunes.
The next track, “Light Dark,” features both guest artists with the trio. The general idea of the piece is that it alternates between light and dark harmonies. This is a concept that Loueke claims to have learned from Shorter, although the technique can be traced back to the early works of Duke Ellington. This particular piece doesn’t sound like a Shorter or an Ellington composition, but is somewhat similar to the late 1970s acoustic stylings of Herbie Hancock. There are no soloists on this track. The whole piece is somewhat of a structured group improvisation, and the resulting effect is beautiful intensity. There is nothing ultimately free about this piece, either — the group is too locked in to think of it as free jazz. But from start to finish, “Light Dark” will keep the listeners attention.
What would a jazz musician be if he didn’t play the blues? “Agbannon Blues” is Lionel Loueke’s response to such a question. Though this may be labeled as a blues, it is certainly not typical. There is a funky groove that insists to all listeners, “Nod your head! Tap your feet!” However, when one nods their head or taps their foot, they notice that something isn’t right. This particular blues tune is in 13/4. Listening to a backbeat groove like that leads one to think that there is a simple funk feel happening, but it’s more than that. Loueke navigates the time signature while soloing as if he’s lived his life in 13/4. On this track, though, he may be outshined. Drummer Ferenc Nemeth solos over an ostinato set up by Bialcoti (and eventually Loueke), and he keeps the groove happening and makes many musical statements. Listening to this solo, one could just hear James Brown call out, “Give the drummer some!”
The closing track, “Nonvignon,” sounds like an African folk song. The melody has a very singable style to it, and the soloing by Loueke is in the same vein. He starts off playing very melodically and then adds some dissonant harmonies to this melodic style. Towards the end of his solo he works in a dazzling display of guitar technique. At this point, he quits singing along because the guitar work is so intricate. After Louke winds down, the trio restates the melody. This is a good closer for the album because it brings the listener back to Africa, where the album started with “Karibu.”
Lionel Loueke is well on his way. Being in cahoots with the such keepers of the flame as Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter and young exalted talent Terence Blanchard definitely establish him as a player with skill. Leading his own exceptional trio makes him a noted bandleader. This major label debut is the icing on the cake. Loueke truly has his own voice and it is heard loud and clear on Karibu.
Posted by Ben Rice