Lionel Loueke's "Heritage": Strong Voice of a Quiet Revolution

Lionel Loueke's "Heritage": Strong Voice of a Quiet Revolution
Guitarist Lionel Loueke
(Courtesy Brantley Gutierrez)

Guitarist and singer Lionel Loueke’s new CD, “Heritage,” his third on the Blue Note label, marks the latest chapter in one of jazz’s most fascinating stories of the past decade. And it’s indicative of what trumpeter Terence Blanchard recently called “the quietest revolution you’ve ever heard of.” What Blanchard meant was that jazz was evolving in subtle but also fearless ways, less along lines of widespread stylistic shift than deeply personal interpretation: Each player has a story to tell, the best of which are embedded with innovation.

Loueke’s story began in the city of Cotonou, in Benin, a small West African nation of roughly six million people tucked between Nigeria and Togo. His father was a mathematics professor and his mother, a high school teacher. When he got to the United States, Loueke studied first at Berklee College of Music and then at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, where he established lasting relationships with trumpeter Terence Blanchard, in whose band he played for several years, and pianist Herbie Hancock, in whose band he still tours.

There’s a harder edge to “Heritage” than on Loueke’s previous CDs. That’s due in part to his switch from his customary nylon stringed guitars to steel strings, as well as his alliance with pianistRobert Glasper, a close friend who has become a strong and original voice on jazz’s horizon through his own forward-leaning and genre-busting music. Glasper, who serves as producer, plays both piano and Fender Rhodes on several tracks and contributed two compositions. One of these, “Tribal Dance,” is a terrific showcase for Loueke’e dual voices, as guitarist and as a singer, as well as his soft-spoken, longstanding communion with singer Gretchen Parlato. Glasper has an urgent approach to his own music that is lyrical nonetheless, as does Loueke at times (on, say, the strong, stuttering grooves of “Farafina” and “African Ship” on the new CD). But more often, Loueke’s music moves in gently flowing fashion, which Glasper supports with laid-back grace. Often, Glasper plays both piano and Fender Rhodes; he knows that Loueke’s music is very much about textural layers. And though I have always been partial to Gilfema, the trio Loueke formed with bassistMassimo Biolcati and drummer Ferenc Nemeth, he is every bit as convincing here with bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Mark Guiliana, when Glasper drops out.

The last time we spoke, Loueke remembered gathering up Blue Note albums during his teenage years, as soon as he hit school in the Ivory Coast, where they were more readily available than in Cotonou. Now he must be considered one of the defining voices at the label. “Heritage” can be considered the first release in a new era at Blue Note, with Don Was as president. “When I was a kid, I was happy just to make a collection of Blue Note,” Loueke said. “But, a world away, I never imagined I’d be part of the collection one day.”