Lionel LOUEKE: Close Your Eyes – Newvelle Records 015 – 45:46 (June 2018): ****:
(Lionel Loueke; guitar, Ruben Rogers;bass, Eric Harland; drums)
State of the art vinyl release by Newvelle Records which maintains the high musical standards of its predecessors.
Newvelle Records is in its third season of a unique project of producing new music, released on vinyl only, sold by subscription (only six records per year). These 180 gram LPs come handsomely-packaged with the inclusion of specially commissioned art and oblique literary works, which may or may not relate to the music. Their stated goal is to reconnect the jazz fan to the original thrill of the medium. Part of this may be considered the two-month drama of waiting for the next release. There is something special in unwrapping an LP and watching the dual-fold open with its potent suspense. And how much more rewarding it is to find a product pared down to an essential work of art. There is no plastic, no video-tie ins, no photos, bio, dedications, resumes. In short, there are two pieces of art (credited on cover) and an accompanying literary piece of uncertain description and a single disc of transparent vinyl.
Apparently, given the reports of this label’s ever-growing appeal, the production values of the label are nicely answering the recent contemporary thirst for ‘analog’ experiences. By which I mean not just the older technology but the idea of small scale, human-made products which are tangible, non redundant, made with care and commitment (and are expensive and scarce). Prospective members should be confident that one is entering a rarefied world of Analog unlike any other.
This is the 15th such record scheduled for summer of 2018 and features Lionel Loueke in a trio with bassist Ruben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland. There are eight tracks, adding up to about 46 minutes of music. Surprisingly, all the tunes are standards. Not surprisingly, the arrangements are fresh and varied, ranging from the kind of odd-meter funk of Dave Holland (Loueke is a prime member of Holland’s recent quartet) to edgy outside/ free jazz to infectious New Orleans Jump band grooves.
The first trembling moment of anticipation gives way to the immersion in the special acoustic space of the recording. Track one, Footprints, is in no hurry find its way into the swaying minor key waltz melody. In fact, it is not in 6/8 time at all–rather, there is a gathering of forces and probing of melodic and harmonic possibilities while the listener takes stock of the superbly detailed sound-stage. Loueke’s guitar is snappy; he came to the guitar late, having started as a singer/ percussionist. His style is among the most percussive and can also accommodate a vocalise/scat, which summons up his own roots in the popular music of his home country, Benin. Here he superimposes some dissonance on the well-known Shorter melody, which momentarily disguises the theme. Rogers’ bass is impressive and high in the mix. Like Dave Holland, Rogers walks powerfully, holding together the polyphonic storm of the other players, but then can just as deftly explore a wildly unmetered or odd time signature and make it fit. There is substantial feature for the bass on this first track, and one is deeply impressed with the playing and visceral communication of the performance. Meanwhile, Harland plays with gusto, transmuting the elemental metal and skin into scintillating details rather than a haze of percussive noise. His finest moments come on later tracks.
It Might as Well Be Spring, the elegant Richard Rogers ballad, follows. Here it is taken at a medium tempo with stable quarter notes from the bassist supporting a conventional statement of the melody. It is not one that should be tampered with. This straight-forward duo (Harland sits out) is far away from Loueke’s typical bag in either his afro-pop trio or his heady work with the Dave Holland Ensemble. It does not deviate though, from his essential lyrical mastery. Guitar and the bass balance perfectly without electrical enhancements of any kind.
On Moon River, Reuben Rogers takes a break and allows Harland to take on some lower end duties, which he does with the tom-toms, pounding out some notes to anchor down the guitarist, who employs his kit of electrical effects and some heavy reverb while skirting the melody. The feeling is one of distracted abridgement or ironic commentary. The clever drumming is the best thing on this experimental arrangement of a threadbear Henry Mancini tune.
Solar erupts into a threeway spirited interplay in uncertain time signature. This sort of thing is the staple of Dave Holland groups, and one could imagine how he would have stretched this vamp beyond the breaking point. But here, Loueke reigns things in, and the quick Miles Davis head arrives, with all hands ready to take it into a short but coherent improv by the guitarist. There is not much in the melody to hold the interest of the group, so they dust up the chords into a whirlwind and fade out leaving a feeling of exhaustion and exhilaration in the air.
Side B begins with Blue Monk played as a straight blues. There is a bit of early Scofield in chorus on what is the least imaginative piece on the record. One imagines that these players would need no more than one take to pull this off. Loueke goes into the heart of blues playing without irony and to the edges of the Jazz idiom without strain, but can’t escape the plodding and over-determinative blues progression, which has been run into the ground by too many renditions of this tune. Body and Soul goes to the other extreme; the simplicity of the melody is belied by a most ingenious and complex harmonic progression. I listened to this piece from the bottom up and was deeply impressed by Reuben Rogers’ astute realization of the counterpoint. Loueke glides gracefully over a and b sections, buoyed up over however many flats and sharps without a care in the world. It is a resplendent treatment by a group that communicates at a deep level.
The title track Close Your Eyes (Bernice Petkere) is a standard that undergoes complete reinvention. There is a little of everything that the group does well. Above all, the joyful spirit of West African pop music shines through. There is some blustery raging towards the end, with Harland showing some vehemence with the stick and crash cymbal. It is the longest track, too at 7:46, a happy squall and a bumpy ride.
The oddest, and for me standout track, is the final Coltrane ballad Naima. Having worked for many hours on how to arrange this piece for guitar, I was most interested to hear Lionel Loueke take it on as a solo piece. Typically, the extremely simple descending melody is set against both a pedal point and a series of shifting dissonant chords which have the effect of being ‘harmonic inquiries’ in dialog with the affecting utterance of the saxophone. In this arrangement, Loueke relies on his click-laden Xhosa vocalise to help carry the melodic line. The thick harmonies in the middle register are switched out for funky riffs, which play in polyphonic dazzle against his singing. Meanwhile, and super-humanly, there is something like a bass line which is part vamp and part accent. For a 3:38 minutes, one is held spell-bound by this improbable display of virtuosity drawing so generously from music as diverse as Afro-pop, Bobby McFerrin, and John Coltrane. It is a most persuasive ending to a most rewarding musical experience.
At first, I puzzled over the lack of liner notes; The songs are credited in small print on the back cover. However, I came around to the idea that the music is so fresh and immediate in its effect that it doesn’t need any further context, nor do the players need to be introduced, consummate team players all, as individuals. On the other hand, the commissioned literary ‘work’ Bruit de Fond by Ingrid Aster made no impression on me whatsoever. Indeed, I would prefer an original poem or impressionist essay of some kind over the average puffery or liner note detail, but this one fails to come into focus for this reader. The striking abstract photographs on the album cover and inside the fold-out suggest water reflections seen through a crimson filter. At least it achieves a handsome neutrality. The packing in general is top-notch, the clear vinyl is a thing of wonder.
In short, Newvelle Records is trying to do something magnificently ambitious. I hope that word will spread that these records may very well be worth the king’s ransom that they demand.