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Lionel LOUEKE: The Journey – Aparte 185 – (9/28/18) ****:

Lionel Loueke is by now one of the main improvising guitar giants on the music scene today. His journey is well-known: from his birthplace of Benin, where he first discovered jazz to the Ivory Coast to the National Art Institute of Ivory Coast. From there to the American School of Modern Music in Paris and then inevitably to the United States where he met his current band mates and host of top flight collaborators first at Berklee and then more generally at Jazz venues in New York and Boston.  His work with Dave Holland (Aziza, reviewed on these pages) and more recently his fine trio outing on Newvelle records made an enormous impression on the jazz critics at Audiophile Audition. We were no less thrilled to receive his newest offering “The Journey” released by Aparte Music.

The cover photo of the guitarist in profile against a crimson African sky taken together with the song titles, all but one in his native Xhosa language, suggests that this journey is back home, perhaps with the single item of carry-on luggage his acoustic guitar; It promises to be rapprochement with his African roots. These expectations are met, however only on the three final tracks of the disc which feature his soft vocalise matched to his solo guitar on simple compositions which have little to do with modern jazz. These  demonstrate what a Loueke Unplugged record would sound like and they are exquisite. On the final track,  he even sets down his guitar and relies on just his voice on a moving meditation on suffering and healing.

The bulk of the record is taken up with a wide range of collaborations—to my mind, perhaps a few too many. Featured are John Ellis on soprano saxophone twice, a clarinet cameo by Patrick Messina, the trumpet of Etienne Charles, a fair amount of flute, keyboard and “soundscape” by others as well as bass and percussion by Pino Palladino and Cyro Baptista respectively. Nevertheless, Loueke’s guitar and singing stay center stage and the idiom stays coherently funky afro-pop until the solo encores.

With so many cooks in the kitchen, the 15 tunes come off a bit uneven. The trio of bass guitar and percussion are dialed in with confidence but the contributions of the others dilute the singular expressive power of voice/guitar. The soundscape edges the mood towards Afro-Muzak, while the guitarist own use of synth guitar, an instrument that he use to good effect in the funky Holland quartet, seems out of place here. The soprano saxophone, well played to be sure, adds little more than extraneous decoration to my ears.

Still the highlight of the album for me is the tune “Kaba” which features the biggest ensemble of all. The inimitable violin of Mark Feldman makes an odd accompaniment to a hushed hymn of praise to the sky sung beautifully in Xhosa. The group achieves a artful presentation of modest composition which somehow seems like a most significant gospel of hope.

The opening tune “Bouriyan” is as snappy and endearing as any funky guitar riff + scat that I have heard in a long time. It will certainly have wide appeal. Other tunes with Baptista have the same merry sensuous appeal. The only way to tamp down the high spirit is by use of sad lyrics. On “Vi Gnin” the singer consoles “My child, do not cry. War has taken your mother away. Like the wind carries off roses…” But even here sadness finds at its heart affirmation, at least in the consoling force of lyrical beauty. Loueke is a master of the blues idiom to be sure as is demonstrated in the dark groove of “Bawo” which support all manner of bent notes and electronic gurgles. This track takes him closest to his working Afro-Jazz group. After some agitated and exotic peul flute playing on “Mande” we have the masterful “Kaba” which I suspect is in a very strange meter or mixed meter. Dark Lightning is weirdly metered as well. Doubled voices and distorted guitar and percolating percussion romp playfully through all manner of mutterings and squeaks. Polyphonic play of a high order.  “Hope” however with the intrusive soundscape (played by Loueke himself) falls flat in spite of the collaboration of that most outstanding of cellists Vincent Segál (whose own duo records in an African idiom with Ballake Sissoko are essential recordings.)

Another standout track as a composition and exercise in minimalism is the delicate lyric “Vivi” (sweet) This sort of light playing combines deep feeling and rhythmic lift perfectly. It is remedy, solace and celebration all at once. All in all this record shows Loueke’s journey continues to be a happy one, meeting the right kind of people, learning new things and offering his enormous talent for the betterment of humankind. Strongly recommended.

—Fritz Balwit

Performing Artists for  The Journey:

Lionel Loueke; guitar, Pino Paladino; bass, Dramane Dembele; peul flute, Cyro Baptista percussion, Christi Joza Orisha; percussion, John Ellis; saxophones, Vincent Segál cello, Robert Sadin; keyboards, soundscape, Mark Feldman; violin, Etienne Charles; trumpet