Jazz? World music? Rock? Whatever you call it, Lionel Loueke is a true uncharacterizable original.
For the last few years, Lionel Loueke has been quietly carving out a space as one of the most unusual and brilliant of jazz guitarists. He has done this through stunning guest appearances on other people's records, as a member of the Gilfema Trio, and in a series of solo albums. On his latest, Heritage, he again proves that he is worth any music fan's careful attention.
But there is a problem: into what kind of box can we fit Lionel Loueke? He plays guitar, but he does so in a completely original style with no parallels. His playing is sometimes highly rhythmic, riding the beat as the percussion instrument the guitar was originally intended to be. Part of this is cultural; Loueke grew up in Benin playing percussion, and did not even start playing guitar until he was 17. But another part is just his big musical vision -- he plays what he hears in his head, from the aforementioned percussive lines to thrilling tightrope melodic lines.
And there's another thing: he sings. But his singing is hardly the kind of jazz singing that so annoys some partisans, with big showoffy lines, but rather a very percussive, lyrical, pointillist sort of vocal. It's informed by African music, but it doesn't sound like too many other African jazz vocalists. It sounds like a natural outspringing of his musical spirit, a perfect complement to his guitar playing. And then he multitracks himself into an entire band's worth of vocalese. How the heck are we supposed to characterize him? This is what keeps lazy critics up late at night, people.
Loueke's evolving style is all very apparent from the opening track of his new record on Blue Note. "Ife" starts with a few plucked notes, seemingly random but quickly forming themselves into a structure. Then he begins the vocal melody full of breathy self-harmonization so that it integrates itself with the guitar line and the sneaky beatbox percussion of his own invention: gulps, syllables in time with his guitar notes, and throat-clicks.
This is all before the rest of the band kicks in, but when they do things really take flight. Mark Giuliana's drums echo the track's skittery feel, keeping it all moving along but never trying to take things over. Derrick Hodge's bass playing is full of short blasts, precise in their placement and always on time. This all sets up a wonderful skeleton for Loueke's actual guitar lines here, which are full-on power chording, rich and reminiscent of Cuba's guitar hero Manuel Galbán. The track's long outro cuts everything down to basics for more than two full minutes, giving all band members the chance to contribute to a haunting and skeletal sound that sounds like nothing else that will be released this year.
And this is all just one track, people.
And we haven't even talked about the co-producer, either. Jazz pianist/visionary Robert Glasper has already established a thrilling career arc of his own. Anyone hear his 2012 solo album, Black Radio? Run, don't walk -- it is one of the year's most ambitious and lovely things. Here, Glasper shows himself to be a sympathetic and collaborative boardsman, letting Loueke do his thing without trying to force any kind of artificial framework on him.
Glasper plays on most of the tracks here, but he is much more than just a fill-in pianist. His long and melancholy intro to "Chardon" sets the stage for this moody track, with piano and guitar curling around each other in ever-more complex ways. Glasper's songs "Tribal Dance" and "Bayyinah" are perfectly adapted to Loueke's aesthetic. The latter track closes things out, and is the longest one on the album at more than nine minutes. It also gives the producer one of his only true solo moments on the album, as well as a lockstep groove in an as-yet-undiscovered time signature (This rhythm section is well-nigh unbeatable -- may they play together forever).
Perhaps the most beautiful track here, "Hope" is written by Loueke and Glasper together, and sounds it. Glasper's pop-music piano lines tee up Loueke's vocal and guitar lines in perfect fashion. It all sounds very Pat Metheny circa The Way Up, especially when Gretchen Parlato's haunting voice joins in. By the way, when have we heard Parlato and Loueke together earlier this year? Oh yes, on Esperanza Spalding's Radio Music Society, an album that has a lot in common with this one. Interesting.
All in all, a triumph. But it's not really just a jazz album, is it? "Freedom Dance" sounds like straight-up African dance music; "Farafina" is a weird combination of fusion and post-rock; "Goree" is futuristic funk with Hodge and Giuliana sounding like George Clinton disciples. I'm not sure what kind of music this is anymore. Maybe that's why I'm rating it as one of the most exciting things I've heard this decade.