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Lionel Loueke's Jazz 'Heritage'

From Benin and around the world, singing a song of freedom

By Andrew Luthringer
MSN Music

©Brantley Gutierrez
Lionel Loueke (©Brantley Gutierrez)

A frequently told story music fans hear is that jazz, the once noble art form, is dead or at least no longer relevant and in its death throes. While the sales figures aren t huge by pop standards, engaged listeners and new generations of young musicians know that jazz continues to do what it s done since the beginning: mutate and evolve, absorbing countless influences from around the musical world, and find new ways to regenerate and move forward. Along the way, it has morphed from an American creation into what can only be described as a truly international language.

No musician today embodies this more than guitarist and vocalist Lionel Loueke, who has managed to integrate the sounds, rhythms and language of his native Benin into a cutting-edge and very personal sound. His new album, "Heritage," out now on the venerable Blue Note label, is an intoxicating and mind-bending mélange of swinging, funky improvisation, groove and thorny dissonance, layered with the mellifluous sounds and rhythms of West Africa to produce a unified hybrid that exists beyond labels.

A veteran of Terence Blanchard's bands and Herbie Hancock's go-to guitarist for years, much of Loueke's previous work centers around the acoustic guitar, but "Heritage" features a more electric sound, due in part to the presence of pianist and Blue Note labelmate Robert Glasper, whose February release "Black Radio" is one of the year's standouts and launched an eclectic urban/hip-hop shot across the bow of the jazz world. Glasper's presence as featured instrumentalist and co-producer has pushed Loueke into a harder-edged, challenging direction and resulted in an album that is likely to make many year-end best-of lists.

MSN Music spoke with the busy guitarist about his new album, his own cultural heritage and why he can't get enough of Herbie Hancock

MSN Music: Your new album seems to be a bit of a new direction for you. How did working with Robert Glasper affect your music?

Lionel Loueke: All of my [previous] CDs are acoustic: I play most of the time with acoustic bass players, and I use nylon string guitar. I decided this time to do something more electric and groove-oriented, so I used electric guitar and steel-string acoustic, and the first person that came into my mind was Robert. I've known him for a while now, and I feel he's one of the greatest musicians of our generation. I knew that having a production collaboration together would be a good idea. He's got fresh ideas, and his approach to the music is very unique. It was a great experience.

Listening Booth: Hear the new album 

Voice and vocals are so prominent in your music. Do you compose with the vocals in mind, or is the guitar the driving force?

I don't see myself as a singer really, but I think the voice really helps me to compose, and also to phrase. My phrasing has been different since I started singing, because I have to breathe. I approach my playing differently because I'm singing every note I'm playing. It helps me to play better. & It's part of my sound; it's who I am.

What was your first exposure to jazz? Were you still living in Benin?

Oh no, jazz came much later. I started as a percussion player, I played that for a while, so I listened to Afropop, listened to people like [King] Sunny Ade, Fela [Kuti], Tabu Ley [Rochereau] all the musicians from Africa, so I pretty much grew up playing those styles of music. Jazz came later. When I heard it, I thought,  Whoa, what is this? [laughs] I felt connected, but I didn t know what was going on, because I had no idea it was improvisation. It took me a bit to get that, but it got my attention, because even playing the African pop music back home, as a lead guitar player I always took the liberty to improvise. Usually the band members didn't like it [laughs], because usually you have to play the same line over and over. I always learned the line, but then I usually would go off and do my own line, so improvisation has always been a part of my playing.

Given your background and global perspective, do you see jazz as an American art form? Or has it evolved into something more broad?

It starts as an American art form, that is clear, but I think today jazz is way more than that. It's a voice of freedom, of real freedom of expression. If I go further, it's a mixture of African rhythm, and European classical music, and American folk musics; it's a real mix of cultures. And today, with globalization, you have people like me, you have Avishai Cohen from Israel playing jazz with people from this country, you have people like Miguel Zenón doing Puerto Rican jazz, there's all different combinations of styles of jazz. So once you have that foundation, you can have something else on top. Dizzy [Gillespie] was doing that years ago! [Laughs] You know, John Coltrane has a tune called "Dahomey [Dance]." Dahomey is the old name, the first name of my country, Benin. So even back then, they were already searching for new territory to build this music.

Album Review: Loueke Hits the Right Grooves on 'Heritage'

How often do you get a chance to play this music for audiences at home in Benin?

I went back home and did a concert last January -- we recorded the CD in December -- and I played one or two tunes from "Heritage." People love it! I guess they see the connection with Beninese culture, but there's also so much more that they have no idea where it comes from. ... Just like here, I play this music, and people may relate to the harmony, but there's a lot of elements that are not usually the things that you hear in the Unites States or in Europe. ... So whatever side I'm on, people are still connected, but there still are some new elements.

Is it a challenge to switch back and forth between your frequent role as a sideman and that of being a leader?

I don't feel when I play with Herbie [Hancock], for example, that "this is not my music," because Herbie always gives me plenty of room to express myself. He even will give a solo alone on the stage! One thing that I learned, and I'm still learning, is to be myself no matter what, whatever the situation. I have to bring something to the table, I have to serve the music. I have to focus, and not be afraid to go into new territory. That's one thing I learned from playing with Herbie. We've been playing for many years now, and you know, we always play "Cantaloupe Island," and you know, it doesn't matter! He's been playing this for how many years now? [Laughs] But it's always fresh, from night to night, it's always fresh, and I want to hear more of him! And for me, that's what matters about this music.

Andrew Luthringer has worked in the digital division of Warner Music Group, and during the ringtone craze as a music editor at T-Mobile. He has been an editorial presence at MSN Music off and on since 2001. He has written and produced numerous reviews and interviews with such artists as Alicia Keys, Mick Jagger, Stevie Nicks, Michael Brecker, Hilary Hahn and many others.

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