On his sophomore disc for the famed jazz label Blue Note, guitarist Lionel Loueke is making wide-ranging world music that coaxes jazz out of its house to play. Originally from the African country Benin, Loueke has spent plenty of time playing jazz with brilliant players in the modern tradition such as Terence Blanchard. He has also played, and plenty, with senior architects like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.
But, at 37, Loueke is hardly a kid anymore, and his musical identity is hardly in doubt. With Mwaliko, Loueke is continuing to stand on his own two feet, demonstrating that his winsome fusion between jazz and West African music applies in many contexts.
His guitar improvising, where he plays most plainly like a regular jazz player, has a freshness that can’t be denied. We hear this most plainly on the tracks where he plays with his trio, with Massimo Biolcati on bass and Ferenc Nemeth on drums. But even here there is a set of off-kilter rhythms that turns his Wes Montgomery octaves or his swinging runs into something original.
On most of the tracks here, however, Loueke is playing in duet with singers (Angelique Kidjo or Esperanza Spalding), bassists (Spalding or Richard Bona), or drummer Marcus Gilmore. On these tracks his playing is still rich with the freedom and groove of jazz, but he is cut more fully loose to play as he feels. “Twins”, for example, finds him plucking like a kalimba behind Spalding as she scats a slippery melody, singing and clicking his mouth in accompaniment, then playing a lovely solo that would make proud an old jazz cat like Grant Green. Fantastic.
On the Bona feature, “Wishes”, Loueke plays with a lovely sense of folk melody, trading short and tasty lines with the sonorous electric bass sound of his guest. “Hide Life” is snappy number with Bona, featuring a strong vocal chorus sung over popping finger percussion. It is lite Afro-pop, to be sure, but Loueke’s quiet, acoustic playing always gives this music a sense of close-to-home authenticity.
The least “American”-sounding tunes are the ones featuring Kidjo, whose voice soars. “Ami O” flies into space on Loueke’s vocal popping and his funky, syncopated guitar groove. The occasional jazz chord reminds you of the background that Loueke has built into his music, but the thrust of these tracks is African. “Vi Ma Yon” is a traditional Beninese tune that sets Loueke’s plucked strings and Kidjo’s staccato singing in ingenious balance. As on so many of the tunes here, it is not always clear exactly how Loueke makes all the interesting percussive sounds that emerge.
Jazz fans will be intrigued to hear Loueke’s take on the Wayne Shorter classic “Nefertitti”, played in duet with Marcus Gilmore. At first listen, the striking melody is nearly hidden — though not altered — amidst the swaying rhythmic displacements. What is so beautiful about this performance is the ease and freedom of it. Playing without bass or any other harmonically restricting counterpoint, the players are free to sit on a single chord or to flow into the tune itself, and the improvised section becomes a rhythmic dialogue using a bass figure as much as a class, linear “jazz” solo.
If there is a misstep on Mwaliko, it is in the orchestration of the trio tracks. Loueke is all lush acoustic harmony on the “Introduction to L.L.”, but “L.L.” itself (one of the few tracks here not written by the leader himself) moves into some guitar-triggered synthesizer sounds that are jarringly cold and artificial. On a disc that feels so organic at so many turns and where the general vibe of the trio tracks is that of a grooving band that plays together with practiced ease, these surges of digital plastic are jarring. “Griot” starts with an African vocal chant, then moves into an uptempo jazz section for fleet guitar — all tumbling swing and bent strings plucked by human fingers — when the guitar-synth starts chirping in octaves, then rumbling with digital reverb that is about as natural and pleasing as Saran Wrap. This stuff doesn’t ruin the artistry of Loueke/Biolcati/Nemeth, but it can shake you out of your bliss.
The most seductive track is “Flying”, another duet with Spalding. Loueke sings in a mellifluous baritone under her reedy soprano on the head, creating a delicious contrast. And when Loueke improvises on guitar here he sings along in a falsetto while Spalding sways and dodges beneath him on acoustic bass. The melody is a single melodic shape, syncopated but still as simple as a children’s song, that interlocks with itself for maximum effect.
And that would seem to describe the 2010 state of Lionel Loueke’s artistry pretty well. There is an utterly charming ease to his playing, one that communicates in ways might draw in any listener: with melody, dance rhythms, and beauty. But this is also complex music — using jazz harmonies, consummate skill, and tricky rhythmic syncopation.
This combination of ease and complexity is not easy feat to pull off. Lionel Loueke is one-of-a-kind, even as he finds rich collaborators across a spectrum of music. Your ears and heart are next on his list.