Jazz Notes Intel: Overcoming Boundaries Chapter — Guitarist Lionel Loueke Journeys Into Enchanted Diversity; José James Challenges the Jazz Constricts Via Bill Withers; Paul Simon Dives Into Jazz Depths
By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, October 9, 2018
In jazz, there is a plethora of guitarists, each with a voice on the six strings that rocks with fire or soothes with pastel colors or embellishes with strokes that support the surrounding conversations. Then there’s the rare guitarist who creates unique soundscapes influenced by classical, jazz, African and Brazilian music and infuses the music with an “enchanted mystery” that surpasses the ordinary. Lionel Loueke is that master, acknowledged and celebrated by the likes of Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Terence Blanchard, Luciana Souza and many others who enlist his services to complement their imaginative endeavors.
At the core of Loueke’s outlook is diversity of his roots and the goal to take us beyond convention. On his intimate and soaring new album, The Journey, Loueke explores the adventure of music inspired by his life accomplished by a small cast of spirit-seeker musicians from diverse backgrounds. In the liner notes, he calls the heart-filled, rhythm-propelled project “the clearest reflections of the melodies and musical atmosphere that I carry with me every day.”
Born in the African country of Benin, a longtime resident of Paris and most recently a New York-based artist (on guitar and vocals), Loueke today spends most of his time when he’s not touring in Luxembourg with his wife and children. He was signed to Blue Note Records in 2008, but The Journey, produced by Robert Sadin, arrives via the French classical music label Aparté Music and distributed worldwide by PIAS/Harmonia Mundi.
In a cross-continental conversation, Loueke talks about The Journey, which, he says, was a “project cooking inside me for a long time. With the huge help of Robert Sadin, we found the way to present the songs in the most organic way. I am so happy it’s finally out. It’s almost like having a birth.”
ZEALnyc: On The Journey, you say that you are taking us far beyond conventions. In what way are you doing this? And why are you calling this recording The Journey?
LL: Having musicians from Europe, America, Africa and finding the way to mix classical, African and jazz musicians all on the same CD is already beyond conventions in my opinion. The Journey is a summary of my life as a musician and all the things that had an impact on me. This is the result of all my influences from the beginning as a musician until today.
ZEALnyc: I love how you are embracing diversity—in the music, the personnel, the expression. Why did you feel this was so important to document?
LL: Diversity is a beautiful thing, and I believe that when you embrace different cultures, you can come up with something refreshing. I haven’t done any project in the past like this one. Finding the way to combine peul flute with bass clarinets or cello and clarinet with African percussion was a way of making this important for me to document.
ZEALnyc: I appreciate your tune “Bourigan” and how its history originates with Ouidah in Benin. Can you go into more detail on this?
LL: Early in the 19th century, some of the slaves in Brazil were sent back to the African coast, and a community was born in Ouidah. They brought back with them the Brazilian culture—the music, the food, the dance just like the Carnaval. I passed my childhood in Ouidah as my mom is from there.
ZEALnyc: You make some strong social and political statements here, especially with the tune “Bawo,” which references modern-day slavery and climate change—both so important to talk about. Why have you expressed this in your music?
LL: I believe music has more power than politics. Everybody listens to music and likes at least one style of music, but not everybody likes politics. My peaceful warrior tool is my guitar and my voice. That’s all I have, so I will always use them to make a statement. My music is who I am and what I stand for.
ZEALnyc: You are very outspoken in your sobering piece “Vi Gnir.” Talk about that.
LL: “Vi Gnin” is a song that I wrote about a kid who lost his mother in the war. The spoken words are: “My son…don’t cry. The war has taken your mother, like wind takes roses. Don’t worry she’s still looking out for you.”
ZEALnyc: Tell me how you approached the 14 songs on The Journey with your guitar and voice. You are such an original but also distinct in your playing to bring the right essence to the music.
LL: “Reflections on Vi Gnin” is like a meditation to me in the most simple way. Musically speaking, I focused on triads movements from one chord to another with some common notes in between. I also use my volume pedal to remove every attack of my right hand, and finally I use some delays and reverb to create that sound I was looking for, close to classical music and almost like an organ sound. The focus here also was to use the harmonic structure of “Vi Gnin.”
ZEALnyc: You are an incredible guitarist who is the go-to guy for projects with Herbie and Wayne and so many others. Talk about your signature sound and why the greats are attracted to it.
LL: All I can say is that I am myself. I am not trying to sound like anyone else but myself, and that’s maybe what my mentors like about my playing. I am not afraid to try new things because I believe that’s how you discover new territories to explore. I like to leave my comfort zone. My sound is deeply connected to me—to my roots I will say.
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SCENE OF THE UNHEARD: JOSÉ JAMES
In 2015, baritone singer José James poignantly honored Billie Holiday in the centennial year of her birth with Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday. At the time, he said, he first discovered her as a child when he was shuffling through his mother’s LPs. “She liked soul jazz and funk, and all the jackets were colorful,” he told me then. “But then I pulled out an album and it was black and white. And I thought, this one doesn’t seem to belong. It was a picture of a woman with this beautiful flower looking down. It was so different. So I asked my mom to play it. And I just sat there and listened to the sound that was so different. Billie Holiday is my first memory on this planet.”
Years later, James ran into a rough adolescent patch. He was 15 and he had run away from home and then dropped out of high school. He was miles away from having any interest or inclination to sing. “I got in all kinds of trouble,” he told me. “I was listening to a lot of rock and hip-hop, but Billie Holiday’s music had a deeper kind of feeling. You believed her whatever she was singing about, about the deeper pain. I didn’t know about her life, but I could hear it. And I thought, maybe I can get through the pain that I’m going through. It’s hard to imagine, but Billie saved my life.”
Three years later the genre-bending artist decided to do another tribute, this time to an underappreciated songwriter whose songs are indelible: Bill Withers. At the Monterey Jaz Festival on September 22, James paid moving homage to Withers with two shows—one in the main arena and another on the Garden Stage. He was performing songs from his Blue Note album Lean on Me, set to be released the following week, including the classic title sing, with the audience joyfully clapping along,” the funkified “Just the Two of Us” and the dance-friendly “Lovely Day.”
In his December 19, 2017 blog on the site Medium, James introduced the birth of the project by writing, “I offer in the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood, the music of Bill Withers. A music of pride, of community…of overcoming discrimination, obstacles, boundaries. A music of love and friendship.”
At Monterey James delivered his songs “simple and profound” (no hip-hop beats under his music nor deconstructions with 10-minute bebop solos). He played it soulfully straight. Sporting an Afro and strumming an acoustic guitar, he looked like a singer-songwriter of yore. But once he sang to the heart of Withers’ storytelling tunes, he confounded jazz critics by playing it without harmonic embellishments, beginning with “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
Jazz? Absolutely, through and through, even though James stuck to the delicious melodies to communicate with his listeners, some of whom hadn’t even been born when Withers had his hits. But jazz? Take it from the saxophone maestro Sonny Rollins, who was quoted in Andy Hamilton’s book, Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser’s Art: “Different people have different ways of approaching music, and it doesn’t mean that one way is superior to another.” Summed up: Lean on Me is one of the top jazz albums of 2018. Heads up: José James brings his Bill Withers project to town on October 26 at the Highline Ballroom.
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THREE DOT LOUNGE . . .
This is the season for the pre-holiday barrage of new recordings from such jazz stars as Ambrose Akinmusire, Aaron Parks, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Jonathan Finlayson, for starters….but there’s an odd figure swimming in the jazz pool…Paul Simon who recently threw in the towel on touring…in semi-retirement mode, he delivers the jazz-infused In the Blue Light on Sony Legacy…re-envisioning ten of his songs that slid through the cracks throughout his career…Unlike a pop star diving into jazz that can be fraught with failure…witness Paul McCartney’s 2102 lame attempt Kisses on the Bottom featuring the likes of Diana Krall and John Clayton…Simon changes the artistic scene with In the Blue Light….enlisting such top-tier New York jazz cats as Wynton Marsalis, Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell, Sullivan Fortner, Nate Smith, Jack DeJonnnette for starters…Simon writes in the liners: “The album consists of songs that I thought were almost right, or were odd enough to be overlooked the first time around”….he OK’d rearrangements, new harmonic structures and penned new lyrics…You flinch at first at such a goal, but remarkably Simon makes good with an excellent collection, beginning with a cool, gospel-tinged, finger-snapping take on “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor “….Sustained listens bear an abundance of fruit from this era’s most profound singer-songwriter.
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Cover: Lionel Loueke; photo: Jean-Baptiste Millot.