Thursday, May 19, 2011

Musical Painter from Benin: Lionel Loueke in Chicago

It was truly a magical evening. During his concert at the University of Chicago´s Mandel Hall, guitarist Lionel Loueke created a kaleidoscope glimmering with bits of his homeland Benin´s rich musical heritage. Set solidly within a jazz framework, his pieces were beautifully textured musical visions, gently evoking the joyous rhythms of highlife, touches of funk, and even occasionally a Latin-tinged beat; certainly giving credence to mentor Herbie Hancock´s description of him as “a fearless musical painter”.

The performance was led by Loueke and his Paradis (“paradise”) guitar, a custom-made Rolf Spuler instrument that is a piece of art in and of itself. Accompanied by Italian/Swiss Massimo Biolcati on bass and Hungarian Ferene Nemeth on drums, both classmates from the Berklee College of Music where Loueke studied in addition to Paris and the Ivory Coast, the trio’s effortless groove gave the feeling we were listening in on a dialogue amongst very good friends. And indeed the three have played together for over ten years, ever since the times Loueke began to incorporate his African roots into jazz techniques, and thus the tangible rapport between them.

Being deeply informed by West African music, Loueke’s sophisticated jazz is warm and intimate, with graceful rhythmic shifts that surprise and enchant. To the trio’s playing, he added vocals, but much more than what one normally might imagine and experience in jazz. In addition to singing, he used his voice as a mouth percussion instrument, delivering clicks, hisses, exhalations and pops, as well as syncopating and then scatting in note-by-note mimicking of the distinctive sounds of his guitar.

The melodies and rhythms produced by the trio had a fluid and almost ethereal feel, and even the funkiest sounds were delicate and textured. The acoustic sounds were tinged with occasional electronic enhancements, for example, adding layered effects in harmonies to Loueke’s vocals and giving parts of songs a rich, almost choral feel.

It was amazing to experience this entire world of sound being created by only three musicians. Loueke is one of the most original guitarists in jazz and indeed may be a legend in the making.

Photos: Phil Onofrio
Video and report: Catalina Maria Johnson
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