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Lionel Loueke: I Dare You

Courtesy Jean-Baptiste, Millot

Ian Patterson BY

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A comfort zone is not the key, there’s nowhere to go. You only discover by making mistakes, because if you play safe there is a chance you’re gonna repeat what you did yesterday.
—Lionel Loueke
Though 2020 proved to be challenging, to say the least, Lionel Loueke can look back on a year blighted by the COVID-19 pandemic with some personal satisfaction. To produce not one but two great albums was no small feat. First, there was Gilfema 3 (Sounderscore), a brilliant outing with Massimo Biolcati and Ferenc Nemeth—the trio's first recording in twelve years. That was followed by the solo album HH (Edition Records), an innovative tribute to the music of Herbie Hancock. Both albums made numerous Best of Year lists.

Though touring has been radically reduced, Loueke refuses to lapse into negative ways of thinking. "I'm a Buddhist, so I like to see the positive side of things. The positive side of this situation is I found time to connect even more with my kids, spend much more time at home and think about things other than music, because the thing about touring is that once you're in it's hard to get out; from one tour to another you just keep going."

Loueke has been on the touring treadmill since he graduated from the Thelonious Monk Institute in 2003, circumnavigating the world with his own trios, as well as with some of the biggest names in jazz. And they don't come much bigger than Herbie Hancock. Since the mid-2000s, the Benin-born guitarist has been a regular in Hancock's groups, a platform which has brought Loueke even greater international exposure, though the tours would take Loueke away from his New York base for long stretches at a time.

In 2016, Loueke swapped the bright lights and bustle of New York for the gentler pace of Luxembourg. The change of lifestyle brought about by the relocation has been good for Loueke.

"Personally, I have found a better balance in my life. New York was great, but every time I was back home in New York I was still doing the same thing I was doing on the road. I couldn't find a good balance in my life."

The hectic New York years were undoubtedly rewarding, but ultimately draining. "It was exciting, and I would do it again if I had to start from the beginning," admits Loueke, "but I couldn't do it for too long, especially if I want to keep doing what I'm doing and get better at it; I have to find a balance, and here there's my family, my wife, my kids."

With a population of just under 125,000, Luxembourg City must feel like a village to Loueke after spending years in the great urban centres of Paris and New York. In many ways, however, Luxembourg suits the polyglot Loueke. It has three official languages, and is a short hop by car, rail or plane from any number of European cities—an ideal hub for an international musician.

"It's very cosmopolitan here. There are a lot of Portuguese, people from Cape Verde... it's a great mix. I do feel a community, even if I don't do that much here. I am not involved with the music scene or anything like that—I've done a few gigs. It's just I like the vibe," Loueke explains. "It's quiet, coming from New York. I see the modern side and then five or ten minutes from the city you are in the countryside. It's beautiful, I love it."

The greater connection with family and nature that the move to Luxembourg has brought Loueke has helped give him greater perspective on his career and life in general. Perhaps the key for Loueke is Buddhism, which Hancock introduced to him.

"Buddhism helps me with daily life, to see things differently, to shape things differently and find a way to do better what I do," says Loueke. "Before I was just running—running to play, which was cool, but to have the energy to keep doing that for a long time, you know, it's not just physical, it's also mental."

Mentally, Loueke is in a good place. "Last year was positive for me, musically speaking. I didn't have the chance to tour much. I did tour, despite the situation we are in, and I think the fact that I am on this side kind of helped because in the US dealing with the [COVID] situation is even harder than here. At least here in Europe I can travel. I went to Italy a few times, Belgium and France. I teach in Switzerland."

Loueke mainly left his mark on 2020 with the aforementioned album releases. There may have been a major gap of a dozen years between Gilfema 3 and the trios' previous release, but for Loueke there was never a question of the trio disbanding.

"Even if we didn't put anything out in twelve years we were still playing together," explains Loueke. "We kept talking about it and then we decided, okay, enough talking about it, let's just do it. But we wanted to do it differently, maybe like the first Gilfema, in the sense we didn't tour with that music— we decided just the day before going into the studio to get together at Massimo's place to rehearse, just to have the shape and form. And the next day we recorded, so the music was really fresh. We didn't have time to think about it too much and that's what we wanted to do for Gilfema 3."

Gilfema 3's richly textured blend of West-African influenced jazz draws on fusion and funk, blues and Latin grooves. Having played together since 1999, Loueke, Ferenc and Biolcati have developed a deep understanding, but as Loueke explains, their collective idiom is in a constant state of development.

"We surprise each other. I think that's why we stay together because we surprise each other all the time. I don't feel a comfort zone with those guys and vice versa, I'm sure they don't either, because the name of the game is to leave the comfort zone and see what we get. So, we definitely push the limits. But on the other side, because we play so much together, any mistake—and mistakes happen—they don't last for too long."

Loueke expands on the dynamics around mistakes. "When a mistake occurs, I'm talking about musicians in general, if the players don't know each other that well it takes time to fix it. One player thinks, 'I think I'm right' and another player thinks 'I think I'm right,' so nobody is fixing the problem. With us, it's pretty clear that everybody is wrong, everybody's right. The loudest voice that comes to me, that's the one I'm supporting—that's where I'm going. It's a trio, so, If I'm going with Massimo, Ferenc is going to follow. If I'm going with Ferenc, Massimo will follow. That's the positive side about playing together for a long time."

Mistakes, as Loueke knows, are part and parcel of the human condition, and often mean that the musicians are really going for it.

"That's what I always tell my students," Loueke concurs. "A comfort zone is not the key, there's nowhere to go. You only discover by making mistakes, because if you play safe there is a chance you're gonna repeat what you did yesterday. To surprise the other person, or to surprise the audience you have to surprise yourself again. Your surprise yourself by pushing your limit to the point where sometimes you collapse, sometimes you are on the verge of collapsing, and you discover something new. That's the way I hear music and I play music."

Keeping it fresh, as Loueke explains, is also about making conscious decisions to experiment. "Musically speaking I am the type of person who is always looking for something new for myself, because I always feel like if I am bored then everybody listening to me will be bored too. I see different developments of my concepts, because I think a lot about concepts—things I would like to do and like to develop. I switched from six-string to seven-string, and for the last month I am playing fretless guitar every day, so I'm always looking for something that can inspire me. So, for me there is clear evolution that gives me the courage to keep searching."

The one non-original on Gilfema 3 is a gorgeous, highly original version of Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing."

"That was actually Massimo's arrangement. He proposed it and we said 'Definitely, let's do it.' Oh yeah, Hendrix is a huge influence," acknowledges Loueke. "Talk about your own sound, your own personality, I learned so much, to the point where if I play a Hendrix tune, I'm not going to go into his zone of distortion. For me, what would be the point of doing that?

"I love this guy, I love his music, what he shares with us, but I want to take it and make it my own. We tried to stay away from the original and just do something different. I love the fact that the whole vibe is acoustic."

Whilst Hendrix was no wallflower on stage, he was self-conscious about his singing in the recording studio, singing behind a partition with the lights off. Loueke, who admits to no such quirks, has a singular singing style, his honeyed vocalisations being essentially rhythmic and percussive—as well as melodic—in nature. It's a strong part of his musical personality, but Loueke is clear in his own mind what role his voice plays.

"I hear my voice like an effect on the guitar. I just sing the way I hear it, because it's a natural way of expressing what I'm playing. When I am singing with words it's a whole different thing. I really focus on my notes and the words I'm singing. But I don't consider myself as a singer, I just use my voice to do what I like to do."

Jazz standards are not a big part of Loueke's live repertoire, and in fact, he is just as likely to put a wicked spin on a song by the Bee Gees or Fleetwood Mac as he is Jimi Hendrix. For Loueke, jazz is not so much about the primary material as it is about what you do with it.

"When we say 'jazz,' we have the language behind the vocabulary of jazz, you know, harmony, but knowing harmony doesn't make you a jazz musician, for me. Like Wayne Shorter said, 'Jazz, it means I dare you.' I think it's one of the greatest answers because if jazz is 'I dare you' then any style of music that involves improvisation—like Hendrix, like B.B. King, like traditional singers from back home improvising—for me, that's the essence of jazz," affirms Loueke.

"I like all kinds of music and I can't see myself playing one style of music. Whatever I bring I like to make it my own. Even if jazz music is the main thing I do, I do have different influences, so I might take something from the pop world or the traditional world and think about it differently."

An openness to music is an attribute that Loueke shares with Herbie Hancock, whose extraordinarily varied career has seen forays jazz-inflected disco, acid-jazz, jazz-funk and African music. Albums such as The New Standard (Verve, 1996), where Hancock rearranged songs by the likes of Kurt Cobain, Don Henley, Prince, Peter Gabriel and Steely Dan, and Possibilities (Vector, 2005), which featured collaborations with Paul Simon, Annie Lennox and Sting, amongst others, attest to a refusal to be pigeonholed.

For Loueke, the idea of a solo album of Hancock's songs had been fermenting for a while.

"I had been thinking about it for the last two, three years. There were a few reasons I wanted to do it. The first reason was, until now, when I'm touring on the road with Herbie, he always gives me the room to play a solo piece where I'm just by myself, playing on stage for five minutes—just freedom. I always take those moments to kind of challenge myself and I pick one of his tunes. So, I've been developing that solo thing on stage, live, without thinking or preparation for ten, fifteen years," Loueke explains.

"Then two, three years ago I thought 'Maybe I should go in the studio and record a solo album, and the challenge came right there, because Herbie's music, harmonically speaking, melody, the rhythm, everything is there. It's like how we say in French, it's a 'chef d'ouvre' —you don't want to touch that! You feel like if you touch something, you're messing up the whole structure of the tune. But that was the challenge because I wanted to make it my own."

The other challenge for Loueke was simply deciding on which tunes to pick from Hancock's sizeable back catalog, and how to personalize them.

"Most of those tunes were recorded with The Headhunters, or something like "Rockit" has a huge sound—so I had to think how to do it on an acoustic guitar, rhythmically and even harmonically, and then take it in a different direction. You can still recognize the tunes, but I wanted to bring a little more openness to them—the way I hear them, because I have been playing them for a long time."

Loueke was on the road with Hancock when he asked the pianist's blessing to go ahead with his recording. "I said, 'Would you allow me to do a solo Herbie album?' Loueke laughs. 'He said he would be honored and I said, 'No, I'm going to be honored.' That's how it started."

Hancock was the first person to hear the recorded music, which Loueke sent to him. "Herbie really loved what he heard," says Loueke. He wrote me back and said I bring his own music to life, in a direction he wouldn't even think about. I knew he would like that I took it in a different direction, because that's what he does."

Hancock's desire to keep the music fresh extends to the pre-concert ritual of the soundcheck. "I have been playing "Actual Proof" from day one when I joined him," Loueke relates, "but even in the soundcheck the musicians we just look at each other amazed. He has been playing this tune for so long and keeps making it fresh every night. Every single time. I'm next to him on stage so I can hear the intensity he brings. For me it's the single biggest lesson."

Nor as Loueke explains are Hancock's soundchecks brief affairs. "With Herbie, soundcheck can take two hours, or two hours and a half. Once he sits down at the piano, he's playing like we are on the show. Seriously, I don't know anybody who does that. Sometimes the soundcheck is even at another level. We are all on stage and we're just looking at each other and it's like, 'What?' When you have a leader in a band doing that, you stand up and you play! It's almost like having two concerts a night."

Needless to say, the musicians expend a lot of energy over the course of a typical day on the road. "It's exhausting," admits Loueke. "When we play the last note and go back to the hotel or get in the tour bus everybody is tired, but you have to go to bed because tomorrow is going to be the same. When you're on the road for six weeks you better go to bed quickly, because it's like that."

After so many years playing together there is a close bond between Hancock and his musicians. Hancock, as Loueke explains is also a good raconteur. "When we are on the road it's like a family hang. Sometimes when he starts telling those stories I'm like, 'Man! this is Herbie Hancock.' Yes, I'm on stage with him every night but then he starts telling a story, you know, a Miles [Davis] story, a story about Sonny [Rollins], a [John] Coltrane story, and then you are like, 'Man! Where are you going to get those stories? In a book? I don't think so. We get it from the source. Unbelievable."

Loueke has come a long way from the first time he encountered Hancock's music, albeit unwittingly, as a youth in Benin. "I was maybe fifteen or around that age. I wasn't even playing guitar. I was into breakdance, you know, turning on my head. I had to go to the Chinese market to get some winter clothes, wearing some big suit and trying to breakdance with my friends. My mother was screaming because my back was all scratched where we tried to turn on the floor. My Mum was like, 'Oh my son, what are you doing?' And guess what? We were dancing to "Rockit," laughs Loueke.

The young Loueke, however, had no idea who the author of the song was. "I didn't know it was Herbie. We just knew the song. It was all through cassette; we had no idea. So, that was the first connection. The next connection was when my brother had a band and they played "Watermelon Man," and the same thing—I didn't know it was Herbie."

Hancock would gradually come onto Loueke's radar following his move to Ivory Coast and later to Paris for study, but in Benin, apart from breakdance, it was the music of his country that moved him. "I definitely had the influence of my childhood and my older brother's guitar playing. That's how I started We were listening and playing traditional music."

In both Loueke's vocalisations and guitar playing a defining characteristic is the strong rhythmic element, which again can be traced back to those traditional roots in Benin. "I grew up as a percussionist. I call myself a frustrated percussionist," jokes Loueke. "I do play a lot of percussion on the guitar. The fact that I played percussion earlier kind of shaped big time the way I play music today and helped me to do what I do.

Loueke's sound is instantly recognizable but as a student it seemed as though he was the last person to recognize it.

"I had a period in my life where Africa music was one thing, jazz was one thing, rock was one thing. I love all those and I worked on them separately, to the point where I was like, 'Wait a minute' Because when I went to Paris most of my teachers were asking me, 'You have a way to do, a way to play, what is it?' I never really focused on that because I wanted to play like them," laughs Loueke. "I wanted to learn Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass."

Loueke's fellow music students also commented upon his distinctive style. "Because my peers were kind of saying the same thing it woke me up to listen more to myself, and then I found out, 'Oh, that's what they're talking about.' From then on I could hear that all those different styles are actually one thing. In my mind, once I had that switch then things started falling naturally into place."

Hancock certainly heard something special in Loueke's approach to guitar, and so too have Terrence Blanchard, Angelique Kidjo, Gretchen Parlato, Charlie Haden, Roy Hargrove, Avishai Cohen, Brian Blade and Terri Lyne Carrington— all of whom have called upon Loueke's services.

It is Hancock, however, who has had the greatest impact on Loueke, mentoring him in more ways than one.

"Number one is the Buddhism, which is beyond music. If my thinking is positive and clear, then it definitely will affect whatever I do. I still want to get better, but music is only one part of it. If I see life in the bigger picture and get better in the big picture, then whatever is inside will get better. That goes for the respect I have for any human being, for any living thing, for nature," explains Loueke.

"Number two, if Herbie hires you in his band, he is one of the first musicians I met who never says anything about the way it should be. In the beginning I was nervous, and I said to him after the first concert, 'Is there anything I can change to make it better?' The answer was always the same, he said, 'You don't hire a musician to tell him, you hire him because you like the way he plays.' And he's not judging. Like I was saying, if somebody makes a mistake, he's not judging. He goes with whatever. He's not thinking like 'I'm right, he's wrong.' No. We are all in it together. That comes out through the music."

Even rehearsing with Hancock has been an eye-opener for Loueke. "When we rehearse, it's maybe because there's a new project or a new CD, and we never rehearse more than two or three days, and that's it. He's not trying to shape the music any way he just lets the music grow naturally. Those are the lessons, the things I learned as a human and as a musician."

In more recent times Loueke has begun to foster another highly promising musical relationship, this time with Israeli drummer Ziv Ravitz.

"We've known each other for a long time—more than ten years," says Loueke. "I've seen him many times on the road playing with different people and we always say 'We're gotta play,' but we never find time to do it."

Eventually, in December 2020, Loueke and Ravitz played their first gig together, in Muri, Switzerland. "For that gig we talked on the phone and said, 'What we gonna play?' I said, 'My idea is let's just improvise.' It gets to the point where I feel today there is less and less just using your ears and improvising—creating something on the spot. As a guide I sent him two tunes and he sent me two tunes for the sound check but we didn't even talk about where we're gonna start, where we're gonna finish. I found it very interesting and fresh."

The likelihood is that more gigs, and possibly even a recording, will follow. "We definitely want to do more," Loueke affirms. "We're not going to add anybody else. I love the way Ziv plays. He's like one of those musical soulmates, you know, it doesn't happen like that every day. We were both like, 'Why didn't we do it earlier?'

Optimistic, yet realistic too about when things might return to normal, whatever the new normal may be, Loueke has used the pandemic time wisely to re-evaluate the relative importance of things.

"I find it difficult to see myself running the way I was running before. I would put it that way. I think it will take at least two years to get back on track the way we were, but personally, I don't think I want to go back and do exactly the way I was doing before, because I have learned a lot from this situation, to find a balance between touring and relaxing and family time. Like Herbie always says, music is just what we do, that's not who we are."

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