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.

"I started when I was a kid with percussion and singing," he says. In Benin, it was common to have groups of kids playing different types of percussion, singing and dancing and he was a part of that. "I don't consider myself a singer, even up to now. I just like to use it as another device on top of my guitar. That's the way I hear it. So, I realize everything I was playing I was signing at some point. In the beginning, the voice was for the guitar. Now it's pretty much the opposite. It's mostly the guitar for the voice because it helps my phrasing better. I don't overplay because I have to breathe and also I don't play the same thing over and over, because when I start improvising, if I listen more to my voice, I know there are some things that are going to come out naturally, that I won't do on the guitar without the voice. The voice helps the guitar, the guitar helps the voice."

The recording also continues to show Loueke's affinity with rhythms. "In my country, each tribe has its own rhythm. If you think about it, there are so many tribes in Africa in each country. Sometimes 15 or 20 different rhythms. When you are a musician, everybody knows the music from the north or the south or east and west. As a kid I was already into traditional music because we had a group and were playing from door to door to get some coins. Sometimes I was the dancer. We had to play in different places in the country, so that was a great period of learning. At the same time, I was listening to the music of South Africa, music from the Congo. When I started playing guitar, it mostly Congolese music. Music from Nigeria. All those rhythms were strong and intense."

He adds, "when I started really focusing on the guitar I never really focused on my rhythm. I focused more on the melody and the harmony. The rhythm, for me, the foundation, was strong enough. I didn't feel the need. Of course I worked on meters and stuff like that we have in Africa. 17/4, 15/4. I was working more on harmony and melody."

Loueke's older brother was already playing guitar when he decided to make the switch. "Once I started playing I was already trying to do things I was doing on percussion. But without thinking." It developed patterns and an approach that was different, and it was something noticed by his teachers as he advanced in his studies, but also by other musicians. Loueke had something of his own early on. "Especially when I got to Berklee, my teachers and my peers and friends were telling me about my... the way I touch my strings, my phrasing," he says. "I started cautioning myself and thought maybe I should go back and find out what they were talking about. Because when I got to Boston I wanted to play jazz like John Scofield, Pat Metheny, and Wes Montgomery. I wanted to understand the tradition of jazz without thinking of developing my own sound. Then I realized the percussion helps me a lot even today, because I'm like a guitarist/bassist/percussionist/vocalist. All those elements come up in my playing."

Heritage, he says, is a recording he is pleased with as a progression in his music. "It's very different than what I've been doing up to now. I like to surprise myself. I like to try different things. Otherwise I get quickly bored."

After his initial to exposure to jazz in Benin, and his quest to get to the bottom of the improvisational freedom, Loueke went to the National Institute of Art in nearby Ivory Coast. His goal was the U.S., but in 1994 he made an interim stop to pursue jazz studies at the American School of Modern Music in Paris.

"My goal was to come to America, but I had a language barrier," says the guitarist. "I couldn't speak a word of English. So I decided to go to France. Benin was an old French colony, so I spoke French pretty well. It wouldn't be too much of a shock, because at least I speak the language. So I went to Paris to study. Paris was the first jazz school I had ever been to. I'm glad I went to Paris, because I was in perfect position. I learned about harmony. I didn't waste my time either in Paris or in Boston, at Berklee, because instead of five years, I got my diploma in two years. So it was helpful."

In Paris, he did the audition for Berklee and got a scholarship, but still needing money, he returned home and made it playing music. At the same time, he studied the English language. That lasted about a year. However book English and the English of American streets didn't always add up, he discovered.

"When I came to America, to Boston, I never will forget. At the airport, at Immigration, I couldn't understand what the police officer was telling me. So, when I started the classes, it was hard for me. I could not understand, really. I decided to take some English classes at Berklee. That's what I did for at least two semesters, so I could understand what the teachers were saying," he says with a chuckle. "I'm still learning."

Nonetheless, musically, he fit in. "I was already different than the rest of populace, most of the music school. The first semester, out of about 1,500 guitar players I was five off first. I played the first big band week concert. That was my first concert. Usually, it was the people who were finishing the program that do this," he recalls. "The first semester, that was rough because of the language. But after that, I learned a lot because Berklee gave me a chance to practice and to play. Put into practice what I'm learning. In Paris, I didn't have that. I was mostly learning harmony. I was practicing at home. At Berklee, I could practice with other friends and play for six hours a day if I wanted."

Loueke thought he was done with school. He was ready to go make music and learn from being in the trenches, in New York City. But teachers convinced him to do an audition for the Thelonious Monk Institute, a two year program that provides intense individual instruction from some of the finest musicians in jazz. "After studying in Paris and then graduating from Berklee, I didn't want to go to another school. [A teacher] told me I should because it is not a regular school. There are only five or seven musicians for a two-year program. Everything is paid. Paid housing. They give you a stipend every month and you have a chance to study with people like Herbie [hancock], Wayne [Shorter], John Scofield, and Kenny Barron."

"I was ready to move to New York, but it would be hard for me to live here without having gigs. So, it was another great transition," says Loueke. "I did the audition in front of a panel of judges. Herbie. Wayne. Terrence Blanchard. From that point, my life has changed, for sure."

The institute was at the University of Southern California and he graduated in May of 2003. That essentially launched him into a career performing with jazz stars. "You have private lessons. So I got a chance to meet Kenny Barron, who called me later for a recording and gigs. I got a chance to meet John Scofield. We've been flirting to do something together for a long time. I had a chance to meet many, many musicians through the Monk thing. Dave Holland. It was a great turning point ... When I finished, I played with Terrence for a while. I started playing with Herbie. I've been with Herbie for seven or eight years now. All kinds of combinations or people I've met through them, like Marcus Miller. A lot of fame has grown from that point because people have seen me with Herbie. I did an arrangement for Sting. Quincy Jones called me. I did a few things with Quincy. Jack DeJohnette's recordings. Kenny Werner. Kenny Barron. A lot has come out of that."

Loueke relishes each opportunity. He's pleased, yet humbled to be playing with "My heroes. And all different styles of music too. That's one thing that may be my forte. I don't lock myself in once style. I can play free. I can play funky. It opened so many doors for me in terms of playing with people. As long as I can make people feel good. That's always my goal. Many people don't know I played the guitar first as an accompaniment instrument. I had to make people feel good. If they feel good, the phone is going to ring, for sure. That's always been my thing. Make the right decision at the right moment. The more musical I can be in 75 minutes is always my goal."

Loueke has numerous sideman gigs that will keep him busy over many months to come and he continues to compose music. "I'm already thinking about a new [recoding] project. I don't know exactly what it's going to be. I have some ideas. My mind is always searching for new territory to go. New for me. So it's wide open right now. I'm enjoying the music and practicing."

Practicing? It's one of the things Loueke wants to devote more time to. The performing career is going strong, but taking time to sit down and work on more ideas "is one of the things I miss the most. I got so busy I don't have enough time to just sit down and practice. When I was in school, I got so much different information. Now I'm my own student and teacher. So I know better what I want, because of my style and because of what I want to deliver, but I don't find the time to do it. So it's really frustrating for me. I'm trying to see if every two months I can have at least a week where I can just focus and practice. I really need to practice. I know if I practice, what I'm doing now will be way, way better. I don't want to sit down and just say, 'I'm doing good.'"

He laughs when he adds, "Then it's all downhill from there. I need to practice and get better."

Selected Discography

Lionel Loueke, Heritage (Blue Note, 2012)
Lionel Loueke, Mwaliko (Blue Note, 2010)
Gretchen Parlato, In a Dream (ObliqSound, 2009)
Lionel Loueke, Karibu (Blue Note, 2008)
Gilfema, Gilfema + 2 (ObliqSound, 2008)
Lionel Loueke, Karibu (ObliqSound, 2007)
Herbie Hancock, The Joni Letters (Verve Music Group, 2007)
Avishai Cohen, After the Big Rain, (Anzic Records, 2007)
Herbie Hancock, Possibilities, (Hear Music, 2005)
Lionel Loueke, In a Trance (Self Produced, 2005)
Gilfema, Gilfema (ObliqSound, 2005)
Terrence Blanchard, Flow (Blue Note, 2005)



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