Larry Blumenfeld: Jazz as an African Dialect

June 5th 2008 10:06 am

Copyright © 2008 Larry Blumenfeld

By Larry Blumenfeld

If a film were made of guitarist Lionel Loueke’s career to date, the master shot sequence would be his 2001 audition for admission into the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance, then housed at the University of Southern California. “He started playing rhythmic patterns and vocalizing off a tune’s melody,” recalled trumpeter Terence Blanchard, the program’s artistic director, “and we were floored.” Pianist Herbie Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter were also members of the audition jury. “I turned to Wayne, just as he was turning to me,” Hancock said. “We didn’t even have to say it; we just knew: We’re going to hear more from this guy.”

And we have. By the time Loueke, who is 35, arrived at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan in March to celebrate the release of his new CD, Karibu (Blue Note), he’d earned a reputation as one to watch. Blanchard and Hancock were so enamored with Loueke at the institute that they both quickly recruited him for their own endeavors. The guitarist recently concluded an impressive six-year stint in Blanchard’s band. He helped create the subtle textures of the Grammy-winning album The Joni Letters (Verve) for Hancock, with whom he regularly tours. And Loueke is a sought-after collaborator for up-and-coming musicians, including vocalist Gretchen Parlato and drummer Francisco Mela.

Yet at Joe’s Pub, the spotlight was squarely on Loueke’s well-developed trio and the duality within his singular style. Singing soft wordless melodies, his tongue clicking out rhythms, his long fingers sketching elegant single-note patterns then stopping to sound unexpected chords, Loueke had the crowd entranced. Born and raised in the West African country of Benin, he evoked connection to a line of African troubadours, from traditional griots to modern pop stars, weaving narrative from threads of melody and groove. Yet he seemed just as much a jazz bandleader, negotiating tricky harmonic and rhythmic terrain, balancing consistent authority with sensitivity to the moment.

In jazz, why shouldn’t these roles meld? Loueke’s trio includes drummer Ferenc Nemeth, who was born in Hungary, and bassist Massimo Biolcati, who grew up in Sweden and Italy; together, the three press the issue of jazz’s globalization in general. And yet all are, notably, products of the best American institutions devoted to jazz education. Increasingly, musicians who have mastered jazz technique and absorbed its legacy are telling stories that span oceans.

Loueke’s story begins in the city of Cotonou, in Benin, a small nation of roughly six million people tucked between Nigeria and Togo. His father was a mathematics professor; his mother, a high-school teacher. As a child, he soaked in everyday Beninese songs, with vocals accompanied by beats on hand drums and an occasional sanza (thumb-piano made from a gourd and metal strips). At age 17, he began playing a beat-up, borrowed guitar — a far cry from the Godin electric with built-in synthesizer he now favors, or the hollow-body Yamaha on which he often taps out percussion.

When a friend brought him a George Benson album, he developed an ear for jazz. He left home on a scholarship to attend the National Institute of Art in Ivory Coast, where he learned to read and notate music, and, following that, the American School of Modern Music in Paris, whose jazz-savvy faculty is drawn largely from Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Loueke earned a scholarship to Berklee, where he first encountered his future trio mates, Biolcati and Nemeth.

“He came like a lightning bolt into Berklee and shocked everybody,” recalled Nemeth. “The rest of us had learned music mostly the academic way. His path was more creative. He’d taught himself first. I felt like he was showing us the real way to learn.” The three musicians auditioned separately for the Monk Institute; all were accepted into the two-year program. While there, they began practicing intensely together — at first playing standards, then Loueke’s compositions.

As a musician, Loueke is endlessly challenging, even reinventing, himself. In college, he began favoring the odd meters — 11 beats, or even 17, to a measure — that show up in most of the new CD’s songs. At the Monk Institute, he studied classical acoustic guitar and, forgoing his pick, decided to play with his fingers. Four years ago, he devised a new tuning scheme for his instrument, yielding improvisational lines that often suggest the kora, a 21-string African harp, and close-set intervals that sound more like a piano than a guitar.

Loueke’s music is unmistakably jazz, in that it is harmonically sophisticated and flexibly swinging, informed by bebop and blues repertoire, and highly adaptive to each player’s improvisations. Yet even in odd, extended meters, the music never sounds overly cerebral or complicated. Its rhythms are based on overlapping cycles, as in African music, which turn in easeful fashion. And even Loueke’s furthest-flung solos are staked to simple melodies that float through nearly all his music, recalling, he says, the songs he heard as a child.

Loueke’s previous recording, Virgin Forest (Obliqsound), combined trio studio sessions with recordings of percussionists he’d made in Benin. The new CD blends influences more organically. Loueke set Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” to a Central African groove; he inserted paper beneath his instrument’s strings for one section of John Coltrane’s “Naima” to mimic a thumb-piano. Hancock and Shorter play on two tracks each; one, “Light Dark,” demonstrates the guitarist’s comfortable role within one of jazz’s closest and most productive dialogues. But the album’s truest focus is the trio’s interplay, especially the connection between Nemeth’s light-touched rhythms and Loueke’s delicately stated lines.

Is it coincidence that all three musicians were born outside the U.S., or is that a key ingredient?

“If you asked me that question years ago, I would have said coincidence,” said Loueke. “But today, I don’t believe in coincidences. What brought us here was jazz improvisation and harmony. Yet we didn’t forget our backgrounds.”

“Maybe the answer is not musical,” said Biolcati, “in that, as foreigners, we all found each other by being outsiders.”

“Everyone talks about Lionel in terms of the world-music aspect he brings to jazz,” said Blanchard. “But what really makes him special is that he does something different every night and plays from an honest place.”

By now, Loueke must be considered a jazz insider, extending the music’s legacy through his own personal story. “When I was a kid, I was happy just to make a collection of Blue Note albums,” he said. “But, a world away, I never imagined I’d be part of the collection one day.”

Larry Blumenfeld is editor-at-large of Jazziz and a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal, which originally published this article.

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