Guitarist Lionel Loueke chose to record GAÏA—his remarkable rock-infused fourth Blue Note album—live in the studio with an intimate audience in attendance. The purpose was to achieve a raw energy and reach a musical essence, and to that end he reunited with the two musicians who accompanied him on his 2008 Blue Note debut Karibu—bassist Massimo Biolcati and drummer Ferenc Nemeth—a simpatico trio that first formed when the three attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston together in the late 1990s.
“I always wanted to record this trio live” says Loueke of the sessions, which were captured at Sear Sound in New York City. “We were all in the same room with a small audience, no headphones, no isolation and no overdubs of course. It has a real live feel. It was a very special event.”
Loueke’s compositional mastery is evident in the construction of the 11 original songs presented here and the trio’s performances are extraordinary. “I don’t think we sound like any other trio on the scene today” says an understated Loueke. “I have been writing for this trio for a long time. They can handle every metrical challenge in my songs. There is an inside communication between the three of us.”
The musical dialogue on the album—which was produced by Blue Note president and GRAMMY-winning producer Don Was—pertains to the nature of the Earth and man’s effect on it, an urgent message at a time when the warning signs of global warming have become undeniable. In Greek mythology, Gaïa is the personification of the Earth, the mother goddess who birthed the planet and the entire universe. “She would be angry,” Loueke states bluntly. “We have not taken good care of her child.”
“Broken” opens the album with an otherworldly flourish. “It’s a very electric song,” says the Benin native. “The chord is a little de-tuned. It keeps you on edge. It represents a broken ecological system. It’s actually in 33/8 = 6/8+7/8+6/8+8/8+6/8. It creates a little skip in the rhythm and doesn’t let you relax or become complacent.”
“’Sleepless Night’ could also have been titled ‘Day And Night’” says Loueke. “There are two movements—one in a major chord, the other in a minor chord. I play the whole intro on one string, imitating the sound of the gimbri,” he explains referring to the lute-like African instrument. The 19/4 time signature keeps the song bubbling.
“Sources of Love” draws its warmth and energy from the strength of the family, both cosmic and personal. “I wrote this thinking about the love that holds a family together and the love that Gaïa gives,” says Loueke. “It’s a lyrical tune. You don’t hear the notes’ attack because I use a type of delay to soften the attack.”
The other end of the sound spectrum is brought to the fore in the aptly titled “Wacko Loco.” The track is an unabashed electric guitar showpiece which finds Loueke channeling the raw distorted power of the live Jimi Hendrix album Band of Gypsys. “This is Gaïa’s anger and madness becoming evident. It was also a lot of fun to play.”
The lively “Aziza Dance” is a nod to a supernatural Beninese sprite that Loueke describes as “a little creature only seen in the forest. It’s a positive spirit.” The creature’s beneficent nature is illuminated in the tune’s light groove.
“Rain Wash” is an aural equivalent of a cleansing rain. Played on acoustic guitar and bass it is supported with a wave-like flow of cymbals and brushes on the drums before ending on a slight dissonance.
A deceptively simple guitar figure opens the heartfelt plea to Gaïa for “Forgiveness.” The longest track on the album, the song builds slowly towards a driving African highlife groove. “It’s probably one of the strongest melodies” said Loueke. “We just played it and let it build.”
“Even Teens” is a pun on the 17/4 time signature of the piece, which begins with Loueke’s extended-technique intro where he makes the guitar sound more like a talking drum before the trio crashes in with roiling rhythms. “It’s like seven teenagers each given a day of the week to help find a solution for the earth, each with their own rhythm and heading in their own directions, but also aware of their friends’ searches.”
The time signature of the title track “Gaïa” is a propulsive 35/8. “This band can handle any rhythmic challenge. But the most important thing to remember is to write strong music no matter what the time signature may be. The rhythm must flow naturally and not draw attention to itself. It’s a tool of expression.”
“’Veuve Malienee’ is a widow crying for the loss of her husband” says Loueke. The lyric sound is created by his adept use of the volume pedal, softening the attack of the note throughout the piece. “You don’t hear my voice. There is no singing on this disc but I’m trying to speak through my instrument.”
The quiet is quickly broken by the opening fanfare of the rock-edged “Procession.” “B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix were my heroes,” says Loueke. “I see this as a ceremonial piece for the forgiveness of mother earth. It brings to mind a bunch of people marching through the graveyard, tapping the ground with their canes.”
The album ends surprisingly with a spry version of the Bee Gees hit “How Deep Is Your Love” which leaves us pondering how we might change this destructive course. “I didn’t understand the words when I was young,” says Loueke. “I just loved the beautiful melody and voices.” Even presented wordless, the lyrics take on new meaning here: “And you may not think I care for you / When you know down inside that I really do.”
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Lionel 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 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 the Berklee College of Music where he first encountered his future trio mates Massimo Biolcati and Ferenc Nemeth. After graduating Loueke was accepted to the Thelonious Monk Institute where he was able to study with his most significant mentors: Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Terence Blanchard.
Praised by 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 Blue Note debut Karibu (2008) featured guest appearances from Hancock and Shorter with his trio and was met with wide acclaim. Mwaliko (2010) offered a series of intimate duets with Angelique Kidjo, Richard Bona, Esperanza Spalding and Marcus Gilmore. Heritage (2012) was co-produced by label mate Robert Glasper and found Loueke exploring a more electric sound with a new trio featuring Derrick Hodge on electric bass and Mark Guiliana on drums.
In addition to albums with his collective trio Gilfema with Biolcati and Nemeth, Loueke has appeared on recordings by Hancock, Blanchard, Jack DeJohnette, Charlie Haden, Kenny Barron, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and Joe Lovano, as well as contemporaries including Spalding, Gretchen Parlato, Kendrick Scott and others. He has also toured the world with Hancock and is a member of Blue Note’s 75th anniversary all-star band with Glasper, Hodge, Scott, Ambrose Akinmusire and Marcus Strickland.