September 12, 2012 Posted by Andrew Forbes
Produced by and featuring man of the moment Robert Glasper, guitarist and vocalist Lionel Loueke’s new album succeeds in turning a myriad of influences into an individual modern jazz album, sailing across genres with remarkable dexterity. Signed to Blue Note under the auspices of Herbie Hancock, Loueke must be doing something right.
Key-shaped, the small West African nation of Benin points downward toward the Bight of Benin, and the Atlantic beyond. French-speaking, mainly, the people of Benin have emerged from colonial rule and a communist regime to find themselves with democratically elected leaders and a bit of a mish-mash, culturally speaking, though a delightful one.
Their food is spiced and exotic, and their music blends local folk tradition with borrowed bits of French cabaret, American soul and funk, and Ghanaian highlife. Angelique Kidjo is perhaps the country’s best-known musical export, but the scenes in the cities of Porto-Novo and Cotonou are crawling with talented and dedicated musicians.
Now add Lionel Loueke’s name to Kidjo’s on the list of Beninois talents known outside West Africa, because a contract with Blue Note Records is surely a marker of success. Loueke, a guitarist and vocalist, is championed by none other than Herbie Hancock, if the Blue Note credentials aren’t enough to convince you of his heavyweight talent, and has performed or recorded with Hancock as well as such big name players as Wayne Shorter, Charlie Haden, Jeff “Tain” Watts, and John Patitucci, as well as vocalistsDianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, and his compatriot Kidjo.
And now here is Heritage, a release that comes packaged as though designed to launch Loueke into another strata of recognition and appreciation. Produced by and featuring labelmate Robert Glasper, a keyboardist and jazz/soul/hip-hop producer and performer, it’s an album that doesn’t care to sit still. That it manages to leave an overall impression of stillness is Heritage’s best trick.
From township jazz to slick world fusion, the album is carried on the breeze of rich and deeply-layered vocals and Loueke’s technical-yet-lyrical nylon string playing. “Ouidah” is Electric Byrd-like jazz fusion, and “Tribal Dance” is an hypnotic and delicate piece of smooth jazz as filtered through the Luaka Bop catalogue. “Farafina” is prowling space funk driven by Derrick Hodge’s electric bass.
It’s a heady mix of sounds, a world-pop-jazz-fusion-soul album of uncommon dexterity, given its dog’s breakfast of influences. If it doesn’t succeed in broadening Loueke’s profile, I don’t know what will.
Heritage is out now on Blue Note Records.
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