Thursday: Beninese guitarist Lionel Loueke kicks off Jazz Showcase engagement | Bleader

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Thursday: Beninese guitarist Lionel Loueke kicks off Jazz Showcase engagement

Posted By on 10.24.12 at 01:22 PM

Lionel Loueke
  • Lionel Loueke
As much as I admire the technique and imagination of Beninese jazz guitarist Lionel Loueke, I've had regular doubts about his aesthetic. I think I'll like his music when I read about it, but when I listen to it I often feel indifferent or cold. I don't think his new album, Heritage (Blue Note), is great, but it's far and away his strongest. Interestingly, all the things that made his work novel to me—the easy facility with African rhythms and pop structures, the wordless vocals that follow his guitar lines in effortless unison, the clever, percussive guitar effects—have been toned down if not eliminated altogether.

There are a few key reasons I'm enjoying Loueke's music more now, I think. He's put away his nylon-stringed acoustic guitar, an instrument that for me has negative associations with the antiseptic fusionoid sound of Al DiMeola, in favor of steel-stringed guitars (both acoustic and electric). The new record was produced with keyboardist and fellow bandleader Robert Glasper (who also plays on six of the album's ten tracks), and the mix is effectively lean. Loueke also has a new band, including drummer Mark Guiliana and Glasper's regular bassist, Derrick Hodge, who together shape tightly coiled grooves that provide a counterbalance to the guitarist's weightless phrasing. Two pieces feature understated backing vocals from Gretchen Parlato, which give the airy melodies a bit more substance and texture; one of them is Glasper's "Tribal Dance," where you can really hear a new character emerge in Loueke's solo thanks to the change in strings.

Loueke has certainly tapped into his African roots before, but on a few occasions he does so more explicitly here; "Freedom Dance," which has a strong Afrobeat influence, is streaming below. Other tracks on the album's back half are almost as ferocious—the guitarist's pretty, billowy melodies contrast with stuttery, splintery grooves on "Farafina," while Guiliana offers a veritable breakbeat clinic on "Goree."

Unfortunately not everything works so well. Because Glasper's at the helm, there's a proliferation of post-J Dilla grooves, but against Loueke's sweet tone and soft-edged phrases they sometimes sound weirdly static—the ballad "Chardon" hovers rather than glides. Still, to me it seems like Loueke is headed in the right direction. He appears in Chicago with Guiliana and bassist Michael Olatuja, playing the Jazz Showcase Thursday through Sunday.

Photo: Brantley Gutierrez

Today's playlist:

John Zorn, Interzone (Tzadik)
Girija Devi, Girija Devi (Ocora)
Various artists, Sambe-Comores: Modern Traditions From Grande Comore (Dizim)
Don Friedman Trio, Circle Waltz (Riverside/OJC)
Staple Singers, The Best of the Vee-Jay Years (Vee-Jay/Shout Factory)

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