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Lionel Loueke: Creating His Own Lines

R.J. DeLuke By

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Lionel Loueke, the guitarist from Benin in West Africa who brings to jazz music rich melodic and rhythmic sensibilities influenced from his homeland, always had an eye for inventing his own lines; injecting his own persona into the music even when it was against the rules. Even when he didn't yet realize the magical sounds he heard on recordings by the likes of George Benson, Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass contained, in fact, improvisations.

Now well established in the U.S., playing with the heaviest of musicians like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Jack DeJohnette, Joe Lovano, Terence Blanchard and more, Loueke's inventive spirit is allowed to soar. His fresh sounds are in demand. His colleagues want that individual sound and sense of adventure contained therein. And that has fulfilled his life's ambition.

Loueke started out as a percussionist as a child, experimented for a while with the bass, then gradually gravitated to the guitar. "I was always in trouble playing African music," he says. "In Congolese music, there would be three guitar players, plus a bassist. Every single guitarist has a specific line he has to play. I was playing the rhythm guitar and I was thinking too much. I wasn't playing the same line too long, over and over. I was making my own. My friends were looking at me... Before guitar, I played bass. I switched from electric bass to guitar because of the same reason. I was taking too much freedom. When you're on the bandstand, your friends start looking at you. So I decided not to play bass anymore, because for me it was too much responsibility. So I stuck to guitar and I did the same thing. I was always in trouble for not playing the same line over and over. I always liked to make my own line."

He studied music at home and listened, enjoying the sounds of the American master players. With that came more revelations. It didn't intimidate Loueke. It made him more hungry to learn.

"When I found out it's all improvisation, it freaked me out," he says. "A friend of my older brother came from Paris and had some LPs from Wes Montgomery and George Benson. That was the first time I heard jazz. I had no idea it was improvisational music. I had no idea. The music I was playing was Congolese music where everybody has a specific role to play. Coming from that, when I heard Joe pass and George Benson, Wes Montgomery, I started transcribing without knowing they were improvising. That was a great training because I approached jazz music in a different way. Learning by ear. Transcribing not knowing exactly the harmony that was going on. I figured it out slowly later on."

Loueke assembled a band, but confesses, "None of us knew what was going on. The bassist was playing electric bass, but he was learning, note-by-note, the walking bass. That's quite crazy, because when somebody is walking there's a harmonic structure that you follow, but we didn't know. So he had to learn note-by-note, just like we were learning Congolese music. That would take two or three months. The drummer, the same thing. Very single cymbal hit, high-hat or whatever. That's how I started to learn how to play jazz"



The mystery of improvisation was one he wanted to solve as he listened to the recordings. "I was, like, wow. If they are improvising, I better study." Study he did, the result is the forging of a career that has blossomed fast since his arrival in the United States in 1999 on a scholarship to the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston. It didn't take long for Loueke to be called in as a sideman for recordings by major jazz artists, as well as starting to form his own trio—Gilfema—and eventually landing a contract with Blue Note Records, from which spring his latest album Heritage, his third on the label. This one is co-produced by Robert Glasper, a young pianist/composer who has been turning heads in the jazz world in recent years.

"It was great," says Loueke of the collaboration. "We both have the same kind of vision about music in general and how to approach it. He gave me some great advice. It was a co-production, so we both were very open-minded. We tried to find ideas and see what works the best."

The album is more electric than Loueke's previous recordings, the inspiration coming from all the music he had been checking out and working out going back to his days in Africa. "I'm known on my own recordings as the guitarist who's playing nylon strings. This was quite different. I played pretty much electric and steel string. I wanted to do something electric. Usually I use acoustic bass, but on this it was electric," he notes.

The title, Heritage, has significance as well. "It's the heritage of my ancestors and the heritage of Africa. But also the heritage from the west. From the United States. From Europe," a lineage he has because he studied music in France before making the move to the United States. Loueke is pleased with the recoding and high on the band, which he hopes can play this music on a tour. "Mark Guiliana is one of the great young drummers today. He has been pretty much everywhere. We all go for the music, not thinking too much, and see what happens. The music I wrote was very simple on paper. I did not give too much instruction because I knew we it would be magical just to let the guys play. Derrick Hodge on bass, one of the greatest bass players I know."

Gratchen Parlato, who the guitarists knows from both Berklee and the Thelonious Monk Institute, provides vocals for two of the cuts, "Tribal Dance" and Hope." We went to school together (Berklee). "She definitely has the same vision and she's definitely one of my favorite singers simply because she's not afraid to go over the boundaries," Loueke says. "She has great ears and great timing. She came ready. Her approach to a composition is very unique... With Gretchen I always feel free to go anywhere. I know she will be following, and vice versa."

Other tunes on this impressive recording of varied rhythmic and melodic textures feature Loueke vocalizing with his guitar, in sections—put to great use in "Bayyinah"—something that has almost become a trademark.
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