Guitarist Lionel Loueke is shaking up the New York jazz scene with a sound that combines post-bebop fusion, lyrical ballads and even African rhythms and melodies. Loueke's new CD is titled Mwaliko, and it's his best work yet.
Loueke is fluent in African, Brazilian and bebop rhythms. He might play simple folk chords, then stretch them into elaborate re-harmonizations. He might sing in his deep, velvety baritone, then pluck out clean melodies on his nylon-string guitar before layering on effects that make it sound more like an organ. And all that in a single song.
Loueke's longstanding trio contributes three of the 12 tracks on Mwaliko. Most of the others are intimate duets with free-thinking young players such as bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding or drummer Marcus Gilmore, who anchors Loueke's take on Wayne Shorter's brooding classic, "Neffertiti."
Loueke's mentor, Herbie Hancock, calls him "fearless... a musical painter." Hancock loved Loueke's music from the start because, as he put it, "no territory was forbidden." That includes Africa. Loueke was born in Benin, a country known more for traditional drumming and salsa-inflected dance music than for jazz. A lot of good players from countries like this wind up in Europe or the U.S., where they strive for a Western sound and leave all traces of African music behind. Not Loueke. His duet with Cameroonian bassist Richard Bona draws on the palm-wine guitar style — very old school and very sweet. Better still is Loueke with vocalist Angelique Kidjo, also from Benin, reworking the Afropop hit "Ami O."
"Ami O" is explosive and exuberant. It honors the simple charm of a popular dance song, gracing it with subtlety and sophistication without a hint of a superior air. That's unusual, and just one example of Loueke's ravenous stylistic reach. "No territory forbidden" is a kind of jazz credo, but a tough one to live up to. Lionel Loueke walks the walk, and Mwaliko solidifies his standing as a truly original voice in today's jazz.