I’ve been trying to figure out why I like Lionel Loueke’s music as much as I do.
Yes, he’s extremely good at what he does. He has a distinct musical identity, his own particular combination of influences, and dedication to the craft. He also has his own unique ways of making music. Whether he’s out front doing his own thing during his concerts or on his own records, I know it’s Lionel Loueke speaking to me from the second I hear his guitar, voice, or both. The man from Benin is known far and wide for his beautifully moving recordings as a leader.
He is a living bridge between Africa and the West, steeped in the music of his childhood and fluent in America’s music, jazz. But there’s something else.
It turns out I enjoy his work so much because he is the ultimate collaborator. Even though he has an incredibly distinct style, when he’s working on someone else’s thing he brings just what’s needed for that moment.
Here are a few examples:
Loueke has a long history of collaboration with singer Gretchen Parlato; they’ve worked on each others’ albums for several years now. On “Within Me,” from Parlato’s album In A Dream, Loueke seems to lay out during the verses and is gently there for the rest of the piece. He provides rhythmic pulse and emphasis and stays out of the foreground. His is a perfect, minimalist effort in support of a beautiful voice and lyric.
Magos Herrera, a very talented singer from Mexico by way of New York City, worked with Loueke on her album Distancia. The album’s opening cut, “Reencuentro,” features Loueke as an up-front member of the rhythm section. He moves into his solo by echoing the last line of Herrera’s chorus and then has a melodic conversation with pianist Aaron Goldberg. Here Loueke’s efforts are a prominent part of a successful group effort.
Terence Blanchard worked with Loueke on his latest album Choices. “Byus,” the album’s opening cut, features Loueke’s intro under Dr. Cornel West’s spoken words and his solo over the cut’s fade. In between, Loueke comps beautifully under Walter Smith III and Blanchard’s solos. This time he gives a little signature Loueke in the beginning and a lot of inventive support for the rest of the cut.
I really appreciate the subtle support Lionel Loueke gives to others on their projects. To me, his efforts are the very essence of the type of collaboration that makes much of today’s jazz so exciting. Lionel Loueke helps others bring out the best in themselves, and that’s great for jazz fans everywhere.
Photo of Lionel Loueke by Juan-Carlos Hernandez