Hailed as a “gentle virtuoso” by Jon Pareles of The New York Times, guitarist/vocalist Lionel Loueke follows up his acclaimed Blue Note releases Karibu and Mwaliko with the extraordinary Heritage.
Co-produced by piano great and Blue Note label mate Robert Glasper, Heritage finds Loueke at the helm of a new lineup with a more electric sound. In addition, Loueke, long known for his nylon-string acoustic guitar, does not feature that instrument on Heritage. He transitions to steel-string acoustic and electric guitars, joining Glasper, electric bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Mark Guiliana to create music full of churning groove and high-intensity improvisation. Still, Loueke’s gentleness, his gift for poetic melody, remains in the forefront.
A veteran of bands led by Terence Blanchard and Herbie Hancock, Loueke is bringing jazz into vibrant contact with the sounds of West Africa, in particular his native Benin. The title Heritage is a direct reference to his personal odyssey. “I have two heritages,” Loueke says. “One is from my ancestors from Africa, and that goes through my music, my body, my soul, every aspect of what I do. But also I have the heritage from the Occident, from the West, from Europe and the U.S. I speak English, I speak French, and I have that heritage too. I called this album Heritage because I’ve been blessed by all different parts of the world, and most of the songs reflect that.”
In addition to co-producing, Glasper plays piano and Fender Rhodes and contributes two compositions of his own, “Tribal Dance” and “Bayyinah” (he shares credit with Lionel on “Hope”). “Robert is a true genius,” says Loueke, “and I knew that he’d be the right person. I like a musician who surprises me all the time. We’re good friends and we’re both open, and that’s when the magic happens.” Loueke has performed as a special guest with the Robert Glasper Trio, and was in fact an original member of the Robert Glasper Experiment when it first formed.
Hodge is a key member of Glasper’s Experiment band. He and Loueke also shared the bandstand some years ago as members of Terence Blanchard’s group. But Heritage marks the first-ever playing encounter between Mark Guiliana and the seasoned Glasper-Hodge team. “I worked with Mark in Italy playing with Jason Lindner, and it really flipped me out. I’m lucky enough to play with the greatest drummers living, but when it comes to this little cat, man, he’s something else. Very precise and at the same time very musical.”
Heritage begins with the mesmerizing harmonized Yoruba vocals of “Ifê,” meaning “love.” The muted, percussive guitar in the opening, and the electronic effects heard frequently throughout the album, remind us that Loueke has long embraced technology and unorthodox timbres, even as he’s emphasized a largely acoustic sound.
“Ouidah,” with its laid-back, lyrical flow, evokes “my mom’s village, where she was born,” Loueke reveals. “Ouidah was the center of the slave trade in Benin — that’s where the slaves left from, on the coast.” Loueke sings the melody with a characteristic fragile beauty. “The voice is definitely part of my sound,” he continues. “From the beginning, I always wanted to sing every note I’m playing. But on this album compared to others, you don’t hear my voice during solos. I decided to cut that and let the sound of the guitar speak for itself.”
Vocalist Gretchen Parlato, who attended the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz with Loueke, joins the group for “Tribal Dance” and “Hope.” The former is “mostly melody from beginning to end, like chanting,” Loueke explains, “like Wayne Shorter’s ‘Nefertiti,’ where the melody keeps going and it puts you in a trance.” The latter is mainly Loueke’s creation, although “if you listen at the end, there’s a new vamp starting, and that’s Robert’s idea. It happened naturally and we all joined.” The lyrics, in a rough translation from Loueke’s native Fon: “Nobody stays in the dark forever. Courage, you need courage, don’t give up, it’s all going to be fine, and your light will shine.”
Loueke is explosive in the trio context: Gilfema, his trio with bassist Massimo Biolcati, drummer Ferenc Nemeth, was at the heart of Lionel’s previous Blue Note outings. Heritage includes four trio pieces, including the opening “Ifê,” with the markedly different Hodge-Guiliana lineup: “Freedom Dance” is looser, “something groovy and happy that I wanted to let develop in the studio,” Loueke remarks. “Farafina,” or “land of the dark skins,” has a deep intricacy, “almost like the dance of the drunk man. It’s a crazy tune. I’m singing the melody and I’m using one of my favorite pedals, a new addition, a pitch bender. You can hear it particularly at the end when I play the bass line with Derrick, in the coda.” “Goree,” in a parallel to “Ouidah,” is named for the island offshoot of Dakar, Senegal, another major slave trade port. “Derrick set up that bass line and we said, ‘Ok, that’s where we’re going.’ My focus was just let the cats play.”
“African Ship” references slavery as well, but in an inverse and ambivalent way: “That’s the ship going back from the U.S. or Europe to Africa, with people being very happy inside the ship. Slavery, that’s part of what I mean by Heritage — people came back to Africa with a different knowledge. In Africa we have a different view of the Occident, we learned from it.” The ghostly, faraway sound of the piano was Glasper’s suggestion, and “it totally makes sense for the song title,” Loueke notes. “It’s a sound coming from far away and going back. And I didn’t even explain to Robert exactly what the title means!”
“Chardon” is French for “thistle.” “Why ‘thistle’? Because I think it’s one of the most beautiful flowers, but also one of the most dangerous. So my composition is compared to life — I was almost going to call it life. Life is beautiful but we get hurt sometimes, so you have to know where you’re putting your feet when you move, when you make your decisions.” Glasper’s “Bayyinah,” written for a departed family member, touches on the pain of life as well, but closes the album in high spirits. As elsewhere, Glasper plays Rhodes and piano simultaneously. “That’s what he does, just being himself,” says Lionel. “I love that about him.”
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Starting out on vocals and percussion, Loueke picked up the guitar late, at age 17. After his initial to exposure to jazz in Benin, he left to attend the National Institute of Art in nearby Ivory Coast. In 1994 he left Africa to pursue jazz studies at the American School of Modern Music in Paris, then came to the U.S. on a scholarship to Berklee. From there, Loueke gained acceptance to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, where he encountered his Gilfema bandmates Biolcati, Nemeth, Parlato and other musicians with whom he would form lasting creative relationships.
Praised by his mentor Herbie Hancock as “a musical painter,” Loueke combines harmonic complexity, soaring melody, a deep knowledge of African folk forms, and conventional and extended guitar techniques to create a warm and evocative sound of his own. His previous Blue Note release, Mwaliko, offered a series of searching, intimate duets with Angelique Kidjo, Richard Bona, Esperanza Spalding and Marcus Gilmore — artists and allies who continue to have a profound impact on Loueke’s vision as a bandleader.
In addition to Karibu and three previous albums with Gilfema (Gilfema, Virgin Forest, Gilfema + 2), Loueke has appeared on Terence Blanchard’s Grammy-nominated Flow (2005) and Hancock’s Grammy-winning River: The Joni Letters (2008). He has also toured the world as a member of Hancock’s band and appeared on recordings by such legends as Jack DeJohnette (Sound Travels), Charlie Haden (Land of the Sun), Kenny Barron (The Traveler) and Gonzalo Rubalcaba (XXI Century). He has also recorded with Esperanza Spalding (Radio Music Society), Gretchen Parlato (In a Dream), Avishai Cohen (After the Big Rain), Kendrick Scott (Source) and other leading peers.
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