The African guitarist makes an evocative and quietly exciting date for Blue Note.
Lionel Loueke seemed to appear out of nowhere a few years ago -- going from Benin, West Africa (via the Berklee College of Music) to playing with Terence Blanchard and Herbie Hancock. Talk about landing some fine gigs.
But, of course, it wasn't that easy. Loueke didn't even pick up a guitar until he was 17, and he then studied at home, in the Ivory Coast, Paris, Boston, and finally the Thelonious Monk Institute in Los Angeles. Along the way he started playing with Massimo Biolcati on bass and Ferenc Nemeth on drums, and befriended, well, Terence Blanchard, Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter. His playing is a unique blend of the African stringed instrument tradition, jazz, and pop, and he has become a useful and interesting foil to his better-known collaborators. With Karibu (that's Swahili for "Welcome"), Loueke makes his Blue Note debut with his regular trio, including Hancock and Shorter guesting a couple of times each.
Karibu is both challenging and easy on the ears. It challenges by combining African music with jazz feeling in a carefully integrated way. But it pleases because the group's sonority and texture is silky and light. Loueke plays a very clean -- almost acoustic sounding -- guitar with an extremely light attack, and he often sings along with his playing, somewhat in the manner of his early hero, George Benson. Loueke's wordless vocals can occupy the foreground as melody (as on the title track), or they can be lightly scatted in falsetto along with improvisation (as on "Zala"), but they are largely airy or paper-thin, a kind of world music affectation more than full-throated singing -- the glaze on a cake.
The bulk of the album is carried along by the trio, with only three tunes featuring Loueke's famous guests. The trio plays with huge familiarity, setting up gentle polyrhythmic grooves that are steeped in West African tradition. On their version of Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark", the introduction seems unrecognizable, with Loueke both scatting and clicking his tongue while the trio sets up a vamp and groove that would seem not to suggest or carry the standard tune. But then, sure enough, "Skylark" emerges easy as the dawn, with Biolcati and Nemeth playing a loose jazz time reminiscent of Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. It is a lovely slight of hand. "Benny's Tune" sets up an Afro-poppish groove, but the performance breaks free in no time, and Loueke's solo becomes something much more like a collection improvisation for the trio, with Nemeth coloring and feeding it all with masterful energy.
The trio material does not have a sameness to it -- "Agbannon Blues" is mostly funky, while "Nonvignon" has a stuttering samba-ish quality, for example -- but the light tone of the recording might make is seem that way. Every element of the songs, from vocals to the leader's guitar to the rhythm section, seems muted and lost in the mix. It's a very democratic sound, but it also makes the pure trio tracks seem like they are missing something.
When the guest performers appear, they really stand out. Herbie Hancock is subtle and then wild on "Seven Teens", first dancing with the guitar and then taking over for a free and daring solo statement. He plays a more supportive role along with Wayne Shorter on "Light Dark", where the instruments seem throughout to be in perfect balance and pastel ease. Shorter -- both here and on "Naima" -- plays his keening, nasal, liquid-gold soprano saxophone. As brilliant and versatile (and immediately recognizable by his sound) as Hancock is, Shorter dominates his tracks. He brings to Loueke's group some much-needed focus and spice. Here, you ear tells you, is what the rest of the recording has been lacking. Shorter, of course, is one of the greatest living jazz musicians, so perhaps it is unfair to hear the other tracks as lesser. But this version of "Naima" is like none you have heard before -- intensely exciting, polyrhythmic, and contemporary. If Shorter is the solution to Karibu's weaknesses, then it's equally true that Loueke's trio, with its tongue-clicking and exotic world-percussion sound, seems like an ideal foil to the great saxophonist. No small compliment.
Of course, this is the very thing that musicians like Blanchard, Hancock, and Shorter have been hearing in the young West African guitarist. He is a sympathetic listener as he plays, and his trio-mates are every bit as nuanced in their support. The one quintet song, "Light Dark", achieves what the finest of the very early Weather Report records got right -- it is epic and open at the same time, it is a kind of "fusion" that is not at all about lathering up jazz with some pop sheen. Loueke wrote the tune, and it weaves basslines, saxophone parts, shifting rhythms, and vocals melodies into a truly affecting whole. It deserves to be heard widely.
Lionel Loueke, I would imagine, is getting heard more widely than he could have dreamed back in Benin when he first lifted his brother's guitar. That he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with giants like Hancock and Shorter is remarkable. Now it's his turn to stand more completely on is own.