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Guitarist Lionel Loueke, from Benin, has enjoyed a steadily rising profile since arriving in the USA in 1999. Karibu is his fifth album as a leader, his first for a major label. When Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter endorse a rising star and then agree to be sidemen on his album, it is time to sit up and take notice. (They were last sidemen on a Blue Note album in 1967.) Hancock recalls the first time he heard Loueke play, "I'd never heard any guitarist play anything close to what I was hearing from him. There was no territory that was forbidden, and he was fearless!"
While Loueke is fearless, he is certainly not fearsome. He subtly integrates African rhythms into a standard jazz trio; the results exude joie de vivre, and swing like mad. Loueke displays ideas and technique in abundance, but never loses sight of his goal, to produce accessible music. To complement his guitar playing, he frequently adds mouth percussion effects plus vocals (in the African dialect Fon) that weave around his guitar lines. The total effect is of a man having a great time, loving what he's doing.
Of the nine tracks, seven are Loueke originals (plus "Skylark" and a reworking of Coltrane's "Naima" on which Shorter is imperious). Loueke employs various odd time signatures, but most listeners will not notice; much of the music is highly danceable and the trio can make 17/4 sound almost like 4/4, as on the title track. In truth, it is the trio that stars, not just the guitarist alone. Bassist Massimo Biolcati and percussionist Ferenc Nemeth met Loueke at Berklee College of Music in Boston around the turn of the millennium, and the three have been together ever since. They developed an immediate rapport that still shines through in their sympathetic interplay. And while the guests add their distinctive trademarks to the musicmost notably on the lengthy "Light-Dark," a freer piece that literally shifts mood from light to darkthey never overshadow the trio.
"Karibu" means "welcome," a fitting title for this warm, open album.