Posted by: Andrew | February 20, 2009

Lionel Loueke @ PDX Jazz Festival

So, last Sunday I was fortunate enough to get into 2 Portland Jazz Festival shows for free, thanks to friends with extra tickets.  The first was McCoy Tyner / Joe Lovano with Don Byron’s band opening – more on that later.  The second was the Lionel Loueke Trio with Judi Silvano opening.  Although it might be somewhat uncouth of me to start a blog and immediately put up some negative criticism, I must point out that her set, though interesting on a cerebral level (and certainly displaying her amazing vocal range and intonation) was not compelling.  I am not entirely sure why – her band was quite solid (Joe Lovano, Michael Formanek on bass, and Gerry Hemmingway on drums (I will take a brief detour to mention that in college, my roommates and I spent many hours listening to a Jane Ira Bloom record on which Gerry Hemmingway played some sort of synth-tubular bells, and I had half a mind to ask him what the hell they were, but he appeared very busy packing up his stuff after the set)), but anyway despite the solidity of the musicians, a certain depth was lacking.  Perhaps it has to do with my long-standing dislike of worldess vocalists.  Hearing Lovano on alto clarinet was a nice perk however…

So next was Lionel Loueke’s trio, featuring the amazingly named Massimo Biolcati on bass and Ferenc Nemeth on drums.  These guys have been playing together for 10 years, since they all went to Berkelee at the same time…they are super-international – the bassist is from Italy/Sweeden, the drummer from Hungary, and Lionel from Benin in W. Africa.  Anyway, as you may or may not know, I am somewhat of an African music freak, having travelled to 5 West African countries in 2007 with the U.S. State Department’s Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad program in Devin Phillips‘ group, after which I started the Andrew Oliver Kora Band, fusing jazz and West African music.  So naturally I was really excited to see this trio as a result of my interest in the myriad ways in which jazz and African music are related and can work together (or sometimes not work together).  The concert was exceptional – the group, as I mentioned, having played together consistently for 10 years, was amazingly tight and in tune with one another and the tunes, primarily originals by Loueke with a few arrangements of standards into odd meters (yes, these guys went to Berklee – but I have to say they pulled off these arrangements with a much more organic sound than your typical “hip” NYC arrangement of Body and Soul in 5/4 or whatever) were excellent – typically starting with a bassline and added vocalizations by Lionel, then moving into a number of vastly different but somehow organically connected feels, and somehow ending up miraculously and effortlessly at the original bassline again.  Special note should be made of the amazing technique and subtlety of Ferenc Nemeth, who used a wide variety of sticks, brushes, 2 floor toms, cowbells and a small darabuka to great effect – never overpowering or out of place.  I am always pleasently surprised by drummers who have a large array of cymbals/drums etc. at their disposal but have the self control to pick and choose in an extremely musical fashion, and he did just that.

It was great to hear someone coming from African music and moving into the jazz realm, rather than my efforts to move from the jazz realm into African music.  Kane Mathis, the kora player in my group, is originally from the East Coast and spent many years studying with Malamini Jobarteh (the guy in purple who narrates that video, which was recorded in the compound where Kane learned to play kora).  Kane and I have had many interesting discussions about such crossovers – if one is a white American musician and plays kora, how “authentic” must one be?  How can American and African musics be integrated without being stupidly superficial (as sometimes happens when random African musicians are thrown in with an American band – even if all of the musicians in question are fantastic on their own)?  In my group, I have tried to keep the question of “being white and playing African music” in the background by emphasizing that we really are playing my own music and my arrangments of traditional tunes, rather than attempting to play African music as if we were African musicians.  The Lionel Loueke show was a great example of an African who has, with great success, integrated elements of African music into a contemporary jazz setting but who clearly is a very well schooled and phenominal jazz musician first and foremost, and therefore the African elements he chooses to add in do not sound out of place but instead reinforce his already individual, unique, and compelling sound.

So, on that note, here are 2 videos of Lionel which are very well produced.  In the first one he plays a solo “Benny’s Tune”, an original of his, and in the second one he discusses his music, setup, and technique – note especially his weird tuning and the fact that he finger picks lines that most jazz guitarists can’t even play with a pick!

Hope you enjoy those.  I would also recommend his new album “Karibu” on Blue Note, featuring the same trio with special guests Herbie Hancock (in whose band Lionel got started) and Wayne Shorter (one of his teachers from when he studied at the Monk Institute).  Though not quite as exciting as the live concert – partly due to studio production and partly due to shorter song length, it still is a great listening experience.

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