In All Languages: One African-born guitarist erases borders, warms hearts and opens minds

In All Languages
One African-born guitarist erases borders, warms hearts and opens minds

by Larry Blumenfeld

copyright © 2006 Larry Blumenfeld

Reprinted with permission from the May issue of Jazziz

Typical jazz myth: A guy shows up in New York City. He's from humble origins, is largely self-taught, and seems willing to embrace new ideas. He displays dazzling facility and soaks up diverse influences with great thirst. He develops fresh interpretations of familiar tunes and a novel approach to his instrument. Young guns want to jam with him, more experienced musicians to hire him. Before long his sound becomes a declaration of individualistic joy and prowess, his energy a spark igniting the whole scene.

Soon everyone is whispering the name of this new guy, who just happened to blow in from Chicago or St. Louis or Des Moines or Jacksonville — or Benin.

Benin? It should come as no surprise, really. The world is a smaller and better-linked place these days, and jazz, now a century old, is music of global reach that encompasses far-flung styles. We have a vague sense of that idea. But now, faced with a startling talent from a place of which we know little, we get to hear what a global jazz sounds like, what it means.

Guitarist Lionel Loueke (pronounced Lee-oh-NELL Lou-EH-keh) first came to the United States from his native Benin, Africa, in 1999, at 26, with a captivating guitar technique and a deep love of jazz's improvisational freedom. He'd gained knowledge of and affection for the music of jazz-guitar heroes such as Wes Montgomery and George Benson and bluesmen like B.B. King, but he planned to sound like none of them. He'd been entranced by the compositions and band concepts of modern jazz masters — saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianist Herbie Hancock, for example — and he wished to play with all of them.

One look at the schedule posted on Loueke's website finds the guitarist — now 33 and based in New York — living something between his wildest dream and a traveler's nightmare. There are extended runs throughout the United States and abroad in various groups led by Hancock; regular tours with trumpeter Terence Blanchard's sextet; gigs here and there with singer Gretchen Parlato, trumpeter Avishai Cohen, pianist Robert Glasper, and others; solo performances; and strings of bookings with Gilfema, Loueke's trio with Hungarian-born drummer Ferenc Nemeth and bassist Massimo Biolcati, who grew up in Sweden and Italy. On Loueke's dance card, there's hardly a week without a gig, scarcely a venue or city untouched, a jazz style or band setup unrepresented.

It's easy to understand why. Wherever he plays, Loueke finds a way to fit in while standing out and to transform ordinary moments into something revelatory. I've heard it happen in a Toronto club a few years back, when, during a fine set by Blanchard's band, Loueke sang softly without vibrato in his native dialect, Fon, and played textured patterns on his guitar that sounded like a thumb piano. It happened again this February, at the West Village's Jazz Gallery, when, in the midst of what sounded like a cursory run through "I Fall in Love Too Easily," Loueke found novel avenues for improvisation that caused trumpeter Roy Hargrove to stop cold, shake his head, then dive in with newfound purpose. Then a week later, at a tiny midtown Manhattan club called Kafehaz, the small but unruly crowd that had been ignoring his trio grew silent with wonder once Loueke stuffed some paper into his guitar bridge and began producing bright tones of counterpoint to his own plucked lines.

Lionel Loueke is far from a household name, but his sound has caught the ears of a growing legion within the jazz community, not to mention many listeners beyond jazz's realm. He has one solo CD, In a Trance (available through his website) and one trio CD, Gilfema (Obliqsound), to his credit. He's a powerful presence on Blanchard's two most recent recordings. And he's popped up on a number of other albums, including Herbie Hancock's recent Possibilities and Charlie Haden's Land of the Sun. Still, Loueke's rise doesn't quite trace the arc of a mythological figure taking flight. On the contrary, it's the result of drive and determination, of careful stylistic steps forward and slow immersion into jazz's deep well of tradition. His success marks a personal triumph as well as a validation of a jazz-education system that some malign or fear but that, in fact, can be the road best-taken for a young musician, especially one from afar.

If a film were to be made of Loueke's career to date, the pivotal scene would be his audition in 2001 for admission into the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance at the University of Southern California. As Blanchard, the program's artistic director, recalls, "We asked Lionel to play 'Moment's Notice.' He started playing rhythmic patterns and vocalizing off the tune's melody, and we all looked at each other. We were floored."

Hancock and Shorter were also members of the audition jury. "I turned to Wayne, just as he was turning to me," Hancock says. "We didn't even have to say it; we just knew: This guy is bad! We're going to hear more from him."

Parlato was the only vocalist auditioning that day, slated to perform right after Loueke. "I was listening through the door while I waited," she recalls, "and I could not believe what I heard. Even playing 'Monk's Dream,' he was telling a personal story — his story — and everyone in the room wanted to hear it."

* * *

Loueke's story begins in the city of Cotonou, in Benin, a small West African nation of roughly six million people tucked between Nigeria and Togo. His father was a mathematics professor and his mother, a high school teacher. Loueke recalls dressing in school uniforms and singing the slogan-filled official songs of Benin's Socialist Republic (the country instituted democratic elections in 1991). But the songs that most entranced him were those that accompanied daily life and marked nearly every moment of consequence — births, deaths, and anniversaries. They were highly rhythmic, the vocals always accompanied by beats on djembes or talking drums or large narrow cho-cho drums, and sometimes, by subtle melodic patterns played on a sanza (thumb piano), with its metal keys that resonate and buzz, amplified by the wooden box or gourd to which they were attached.

Loueke heard little American music as a child, but he did begin listening to some of the African heroes of popular music who blended indigenous and Western styles: Fela Kuti, King Sunny Ade, Salif Keita, Ali Farka Toure. At 17, he got hold of a guitar and began teaching himself to play. Loueke knew he had a natural facility for the instrument but that his skills were crude. His equipment was cruder still: Lacking proper strings, he'd sometimes use bicycle-brake cables as substitutes. When he did find proper strings, he'd painstakingly remove and clean them in vinegar, hoping to extend their utility.

Loueke's immersion into formal music education and his awareness of a wider range of music came slowly at first and then in stages, eventually building to the torrent of absorption and achievement he exhibits today. It began when, as a teenager, he left home to attend the National Institute of Art in Ivory Coast.

"It was a great opportunity to read and write music, which I had never done before," he tells me as we sit in his living room in the quiet Brooklyn neighborhood of Kensington, his two-year-old daughter, Moesha, bouncing on his lap. "It was my first exposure to Western classical music, and it began to open the door for me to the wider world of harmony, which was the element I was missing."

Folded into the sofa, Loueke's lanky 6-foot-2-inch frame appears all arms and legs. As when he plays guitar, in conversation his eyes narrow and his mouth broadens into a grin when emphasizing a point. Always, he relates strong substance and drama without a hint of exaggeration.

Loueke dreamed of studying in the United States but chose the American School of Modern Music in Paris because he was more comfortable speaking French. There, working with a faculty drawn largely from Boston's Berklee School of Music, Loueke took his first formal guitar lessons. "It was thrilling for me," he recalls, "because I had access to all the recordings and all the books I'd been dreaming about. I had information and knowledgeable people who could answer my questions."

With his instrumental technique further developed and some basic English at his command, Loueke earned a scholarship to Berklee, where he gained extensive training and first encountered his future trio mates, Biolcati and Nemeth.

"He came like a lightning bolt into Berklee and shocked everybody," recalls Nemeth. "The rest of us had learned music mostly the academic way. But he had basically taught himself, yet he seemed to have gone beyond all of us. I felt like he was showing us the real way to learn."

Although everyone at Berklee was impressed with Loueke, instructors didn't know quite where his style — which drew on West African folk styles as well as jazz-guitar tradition — fit. "At Berklee, they wanted to know exactly what direction you were going in," says Loueke. "So I thought, 'Man, maybe I was wrong. Maybe they're right. Maybe that's how it is.' At one point, I started sounding like John Scofield. But it wasn't me: It was more to please others, to get the right grade. I knew that wasn't my road."

His subsequent path at USC's Monk Institute involved some doubt and challenge as well. Shortly after beginning, a year removed from Berklee, he was persuaded to radically change his guitar technique, to move from using a pick to plucking nylon strings with his fingers. He studied classical guitar for the first time.

At the Institute, Loueke worked as part of a training septet, which included Parlato, Biolcati, and Nemeth. The group would rehearse each afternoon for three hours. Afterward, Loueke would continue working with Biolcati and Nemeth, at first playing jazz standards in odd meters and with new harmonies, then slowly developing an original repertoire. Technically, Monk Institute students are forbidden to tour professionally, but Loueke's talent tempted his mentors.

"I had been thinking about asking Lionel to play with me," recalls Blanchard. "And I ran into Herbie Hancock, who told me he was thinking of bringing Lionel out on the road. I realized, I'd better get moving." Loueke was soon out on the road with Hancock, and installed as a regular member of Blanchard's band. He's never looked back.

* * *

I caught up with Loueke in Brooklyn a second time, shortly before he was to meet with Blanchard for a concert in Beijing. He's come a long way from fashioning strings from bicycle cables. The technological tools currently at his disposal include a Godin guitar with built-in MIDI synthesizer and the Mac Powerbook he brings wherever he travels. I pointed to the laptop on his living room table and asked what music was stored inside. There were files of all sorts of his current and recent work — tracks with Hancock, with Parlato, with his Gilfema trio mates, and with a host of others.

I asked what he'd been listening to for inspiration. A brief digital tour ensued.

First up was traditional balafon and percussion music from Ivory Coast, on a rare CD that Loueke says is impossible to find. "I first heard this music in high school," he recalled. "I love the way the patterns interlock; they take hold of you and don't let go." Next was "Lament for Linus," a track from pianist Brad Mehldau's Elegiac Cycle CD. "Brad is one of my heroes from the generation right before me in jazz," he said. "Right here, you can hear the influence of the Romantic classical period together with the harmonic movement of jazz. He is able to blend them, and that's why I try to do, to blend things. It is simple and beautiful, not trying to be something it's not."

Loueke segued to Caetano Veloso's "Bahia," an ode to the most African part of the singer-songwriter's native Brazil. Veloso's vocal fairly floated over a battery of drummers. "I don't understand a word of Portuguese," Loueke explained. "But I love how strong these melodies are and how every line is supported by rhythm in a powerful way. This is the same way a song is related in Benin." He smiled while advancing to the title track of bassist Dave Holland's Prime Directive album. "I studied with Dave at the Monk Institute," Loueke remembered "and he's a wonder. He's always reaching for something, but there's never the sense of trying too hard. Listen to this: It's an odd meter, a difficult rhythmic feel, but the way he gets his band to consider it makes it sound natural. You don't sense the complex aspects up front."

We listened to a snatch of I.K. Dairo — a Nigerian drummer who leads a troupe of some 50 percussionists — then, to Jeff Beck playing Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe," at Patti Smith's Meltdown Festival in England. ("All blues players can communicate the story in a single note," he pointed out.) We ended on "Line Up," performed by pianist Lennie Tristano. "People like to say that Tristano didn't pay much attention to rhythm," Loueke said. "But listen to the way he accents his lines and drops in a chord only here or there. The accents and the chords are the rhythm for him."

Loueke's smile turned to an almost sinister grin. He had new music of his own to play for me, recordings he made for the follow-up to his trio CD. Recorded in Benin, the tracks consist of singers and percussionists performing rhythms that were once popular but, according to Loueke, are now in danger of being lost.

"I could have played these rhythms here," he explained, "but even if I found the right instruments, even if I played it correctly, the sound of the old wood and the ambience around it would not be the same." Loueke's original idea was to bring his trio to Benin and to immerse them in traditional music, but he lacks the budget to realize that goal. So he plans to play these tracks — all of which are based on established rhythms, he pointed out, and all of which involve substantial lyrical and melodic improvisation — for his colleagues, and then create pieces of varying instrumentation. The finished result will pair short traditional tracks with longer pieces that interpret these ideas into modern harmonic contexts.

This fits the jazz credo, as Loueke understands it. "When I first came to the States, I thought jazz had to swing, had to sound like bebop or have a walking bassline," he said. "But now jazz is not like that for me. Herbie Hancock told me that the root of jazz is improvisation. In Africa, the griot is jazz too, because he's improvising."

"Everyone talks about Lionel in terms of the world-music aspect he brings to jazz," says Blanchard. "But what really makes him special is that he does something different every night. He's made me far more conscious of not simply relying on what I know. And above all, he plays from the heart and comes from an honest place."

The word that consistently comes up when musicians speak of Loueke is "heart." Parlato recalls how she felt her own heart opening when she and Loueke sang his composition "Nonvignon" for her eponymous debut CD. "I had never before felt that level of warmth and safety," she recalls. "I've held on to that feeling, and it's brought me confidence."

"He is without a stitch of negativity, as far as I can sense," says Hancock. "He's looking with an open heart only for things to exalt. I admire that. And I want to do what I can to put him in a position to spread that."

Loueke's openhearted quest for things to exalt — perhaps, more than any worldly influence — may yield his greatest legacy in the end. Producer Bob Sadin, who has worked with Loueke on several projects, including a forthcoming album drawn from 14th-century European songs, relates one recent experience. "We were recording with a group of musicians from Guadeloupe and Ivory Coast," he says, "and something didn't sound right. Lionel suggested a different feel for the rhythm — more loping, and with a different accent. And one percussionist nodded and said, 'Yes, much more African that way.'

"If you could see the look on Lionel's face, it said, 'No, that's not what I meant.' He didn't care about sounding African. He just wanted it to sound honest."

Larry Blumenfeld is editor-at-large of Jazziz.

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