I don’t usually devote Top 10 lists to musicians of my own generation, but I had to make an exception in this case because a) I’m such a fan of guitarist Lionel Loueke’s music and b) I’m so happy that he will be coming this weekend to perform with his trio at Wesleyan and to do a workshop for the students.
I first heard Lionel in early 2004 at the IAJE conference in Robert Hurst’s trio (with Jeff “Tain” Watts) and was knocked out in a way that I have seldom been by young and comparatively unknown musicians (and not to paint myself as “talent scout,” but in other instances of this, they’ve invariably gone on to greater success and recognition, as in the cases of Brad Mehldau, David Sanchez, Danilo Perez and various others). There was a hint of his African influence (he is from Benin), but mostly he was playing scorching modern jazz in the post-Jim Hall vein. While I would’ve been content to hear him tear it up from that angle for years more, it has been really inspiring to hear him develop his own voice in such a compelling way. In that sense he reminds me a lot of Ahmad Jamal – that is, there is a lot he is capable of doing, but he only deploys the elements that are musically appropriate to the situation.
1 ) “Nonvignon” from Gretchen Parlato by Gretchen Parlato
I feel like I should start with something about which I have more deep things to say. But really, I just freaking love this song, which is not only deep but so catchy that in a just world would be all over pop radio. I’ve heard it live and on Lionel’s solo album In A Trance, and this is my favorite version of it. It also documents his longstanding musical relationship with vocalist Parlato, who brings even more life to the song.
2 ) “Griot” from Mwaliko
This trio track, from his most recent release (as of this writing), encapsulates much of Lionel’s musical personality. There is some hard, modern swing and some African-inspired rhythms. There is stunning guitar virtuosity and interplay with the trio. There is the pure sound of acoustic guitar and some heavy use of electronics. And oh man, the vocals. And yet it all sounds organic, not to mention really hip.
3 ) “Calypso” from The Traveler by Kenny Barron
After my first experience hearing Lionel, I asked Kenny Barron if he had heard of him. Turns out that Lionel was already very much on Kenny’s radar from a visit to the Thelonious Monk Institute, and this cameo appearance a few years later is a real gem, probably my favorite version of this great, infectious tune of Kenny’s.
4 ) “Benny’s” (a.k.a. “Benny’s Tune”) from Casually Introducing Walter Smith III by Walter Smith III
There are multiple excellent versions of this tune, including two on Lionel’s own records as well as a Terence Blanchard version and one from the aforementioned Gretchen Parlato record. So it’s a toss-up, but I really dig the interpretation of the melody on this one and the way he interacts with the bass and drums tandem of Reuben Rogers and Eric Harland. There are also nice solos here by Smith and pianist Aaron Parks.
5 ) “Okagbe” from Gilfema by Gilfema
I was ambivalent about including a track from what appears now to be an out of print album. But this is, as far as I’m aware, the first official release to document his longstanding trio with bassist Massimo Biolcati and drummer Ferenc Nemeth. It’s certainly the first one I heard (but I still encourage you to collect ‘em all!) and the excitement, interactivity and dynamic range really knocked me out (on this track and otherwise). This group has done some amazing work both under Lionel’s name and in this incarnation, as a collective trio with a name derived from the beginnings of their first names (Lionel’s “actual” first name is Gilles).
6 ) “Be-Nin-Bop” from In A Trance
Lionel’s solo album is really fascinating and is a great listen. It’s difficult to pick a single track because the record is so varied, but hearing him burn on this one is a real treat.
7 ) “Law Years” from Melao by Francisco Mela
In a trio with drummer Mela and bassist Peter Slavov, we get to hear how well Lionel’s organic musicality lends itself to the semi-free improvisation of an Ornette Coleman vehicle.
8 ) “Alone Together” from Incantation
This trio track is from his self-produced debut record. As much as I love what he has done since, I’m glad there is documentation of his early virtuosity and harmonic command, especially in the context of playing on a standard. He takes this tune in 7/4 and shows how much of a mark he was already making even before more fully developing his personal voice.
9 ) “Eminence” from Fast Forward to the Past by Donald Brown
One word: nasty. So much of Lionel’s work has been acoustic that it is really striking to hear him digging in on this raunchy electric tune. He nails it, as do the other soloists, Brown on Rhodes and Steve Nelson on vibes. Check out Lionel’s playing on “Skatterbrain” from the same album as well.
10 ) tie: “Nefertiti” from River: the Joni Letters by Herbie Hancock . . . or “Him Or Me” from Choices by Terence Blanchard
Okay, I’m totally cheating, but I wanted to represent Lionel’s two most high-profile and long-term employers and couldn’t decide to leave off. Forgive me. The Herbie track doesn’t feature Lionel per se, but I love hearing him interact with Herbie and Wayne Shorter, while the Terence track demonstrates the extent to which Lionel has still “got it” playing over changes in a swinging modern jazz setting.