Blending simple, beautiful African melodies with forward-looking harmonies, a deep groove and an unusually percussive repertoire of vocalizations, guitarist Lionel Loueke has quickly captured the imagination of jazz audiences. He’s also won the respect of some of its biggest heavyweights, including Terence Blanchard, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.
What might appear as an overnight ascension to the upper regions of the jazz universe has actually been the result of a long and systematic musical education—and the ongoing challenge to get the music he hears in his head translated into his fingers.
“There’s no reason to seek in my comfort zone,” Loueke says in a telephone interview from Paris. “I don’t want to be doing what I already know how to do. I get bored quickly, so I like to push the envelope and try new things. I do that mostly on stage, actually. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but at least it keeps me more awake.
“My approach to the instrument is quite different now,” he says. “I’m thinking more in terms of piano instead of guitar.”
On Thursday, Loueke—with bassist Massimo Biolcati and drummer Ferenc Nemeth—will be airing it out at the Outpost.
“Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but at least it keeps me more awake.”
Growing up in Benin, Loueke was exposed to the popular and traditional music of Western Africa, from the urban highlife music to rural drumming traditions. He began playing as a percussionist, but at 17, he discovered a strong affinity for the guitar.
A George Benson CD opened a new path that led to the National Institute of Art in the Ivory Coast, the American School of Modern Music in Paris, the Berklee College of Music and finally the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, where his teachers included Blanchard, Hancock and Shorter.
Since graduating from the institute, he’s worked steadily with Blanchard and Hancock, as well as his trio. He’s also piled up work as a sideman on a multitude of recordings, from bassist Avishai Cohen to vocalist Gretchen Parlato.
The trio, formed at Berklee, brings a multiethnic sensibility to the jazz at hand, with the Italian Biolcati, who was raised in Sweden, and the Hungarian Nemeth. After playing together for 10 years, they are eerily in synch, but they’re not coasting—as you can hear on Karibu, Loueke’s major label debut, on Blue Note.
“The level of communication now is really amazing,” he says. “We’re still growing. We just surprise each other all the time. It’s a completely open-mind trio, because it could come from the bass player or the drummer or me. It’s under my name, but basically, there is no leader. We just go for the moment.”
They enjoy living on the edge, too, recording Karibu live in the studio. “I just want to keep everything alive, you know,” says Loueke, recalling the feel of jazz’ earlier recordings.
The tunes on Karibu cover a lot of territory: There’s the West African highlife rhythm of “Nonvignon,” the abstract expressionism of “Light Dark” (with Hancock and Shorter guesting) and the hard-bop groove of “Agbannon Blues.” What’s consistent, though, are Loueke’s gentle virtuosity and simple, buoyant melodies.
Those melodies belie the complexity of the harmonic structure, which, he says, is getting deeper and darker these days. The rhythms are equally complex, often in odd time signatures like 17/4, but they sound more straightforward because of the deep groove.
Although the music can be very complex, Loueke is devoted to maintaining its accessibility, too. “I always want to write something that when people leave the concert, you can still sing it,” he says.