Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

November/December 2008: Ross Porter

Lionel Loueke: Africa Speaks

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One of the most beautiful characteristics of jazz is that it is open to the influence of all cultures and musics. Jazz music itself is the result of a marriage between African rhythm language and European musical traditions. It has evolved to encompass a wide variety of styles, all of which seek to express the essence of the culture and people from which they come.

In recent years, the development of technology and communication has made music of all genres more accessible around the world. This thorough sharing of music has led to a further freeing of the jazz genre, where its blues roots in the United States and its improvisational nature are being applied to music all over the world. One of the most exciting musicians to embrace and adapt jazz music is guitarist Lionel Loueke.

Born and raised in the West African country of Benin, Lionel Loueke experienced music as a part of everyday life. His older brother played guitar in an Afro-Pop group, which Lionel spent many hours watching and listening to as a boy. At age 17, his brother finally let Lionel play his guitar. Loueke’s immediate ability with the instrument and his musical curiosity led him to delve further into the traditional music of Benin and other West African countries like Nigeria, Congo, Mali and Zaire. Loueke first encountered jazz when his brother’s friend introduced him to guitarist George Benson. Enthralled by what he heard, Loueke began studying Benson’s music, which led him to discover earlier jazz guitarists Joe Pass and Wes Montgomery.

Lionel left Benin to study music at the National Institute of Art in the Ivory Coast, where he got his first gig which he held for two years. In 1994, he moved to Paris and began his studies at the American School of Modern Music. Upon graduating he received a scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston. There, Lionel met both Massimo Biolcati (bass) and Ferenc Nemeth (drums), his future band mates for many projects. After obtaining his degree at Berklee, he was accepted into the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Los Angeles where he studied with top jazz musicians, including legends Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Terence Blanchard. Loueke so impressed his mentors that before the end of his studies at the Institute, he began touring with Blanchard’s sextet.

Loueke went on to become a staple of Hancock’s band, touring and recording with the acclaimed pianist. He is a frequent sideman on many recent recordings, including Hancock’s Grammy Award-winning album, River: The Joni Letters. He has also recorded three albums of his own. His most recent album and major label debut, Karibu (Blue Note records), was released last spring. It features Biolcati and Nemeth as well as exciting appearances by Wayne Shorter and Hancock. The album’s repertoire ranges from well-known standards to Loueke’s original compositions.

Lionel Loueke is unlike any guitar player and composer yet to have graced the jazz scene. He brings his distinct African style and virtuosic guitar playing to every musical project he undertakes. His playing is recognizable because he makes use not only of the strings, but also of the instrument’s body as a drum. His voice flows seamlessly over melodies, yet he contrasts these with astonishing vocal percussion. With creative use of pedals (affecting both his voice and guitar), Loueke is able to draw on a panorama of colours. His remarkable understanding of rhythm and his extensive study of jazz music allow him to thrive in all musical situations he encounters.

This November, the Izzy Asper Jazz Performances series welcomes Lionel Loueke to the stage alongside vocalist Gretchen Parlato. Though both Loueke’s and Parlato’s individual careers have flourished, their charismatic musical personalities, creativity and their wide knowledge of musical cultures have brought them together in various contexts. Parlato’s facility with Latin and African percussion and her clear voice (a cleaner Astrud Gilberto) make her an ideal partner for Loueke. In unison, their voices blend beautifully to produce a fresh free sound unparalleled in today’s music scene. For this concert they will be joined by bassist Massimo Biolcati and drummer Ferenc Nemeth. It promises to be a musical experience that will take its listeners around the world and leave them breathless.

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