Jazz Lionel Loueke in Collaboration: A nice guy, but a monster on guitar

Lionel Loueke in Collaboration: A nice guy, but a monster on guitar

Before the Cape Town International Jazz Festival there was the North Sea Jazz Festival – Cape Town (don’t ask!). There I attended many of the workshops organised by the late Hotep Idris Galeta. The extraordinary contribution from a little-known Benin guitarist at one of these gatherings made us all sit up, and get up!

Since then Lionel (pronounced Leeon- ell) Loueke has made a considerable impact on the US jazz scene, being mentored by veteran jazz masters Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, who recognised both his talent and his uniqueness. Musical echoes from Hancock’s funk period with touches of his own mentor, Miles Davis, were much in evidence in Loueke’s exuberant collaboration with four creative SA musicians on Saturday night in the DSG Hall.

But Loueke is very much his own man, and a generous bandleader – the first tune gave all (except Loueke himself) a chance to solo: first Ayanda Sikade on drums, followed by Marcus Wyatt on flugelhorn, Siya Makuzeni on vocals, and Shane Cooper on double bass. ‘

Marcus Wyatt playing the flugelhorn at Lionel Loueke in Collaboration at the DSG Hall, Grahamstown, 04 July 2015, at the 2015 National Arts Festival.

Later the guitarist took time out to pay tribute to each of these musicians, detailing what made them special for him. “But,” he adds, “besides being great musicians, they’re great persons.” He needs, he says, to play with people with whom he can communicate. And the results were there for all to hear.

Loueke is Mr Nice Guy himself but a monster where it matters – on his guitar. Aside from his West Africaninfluenced sound, his use of electronics transforms his instrument into funky organ, exciting percussion, soulful wah wah and more; all of these effects are in the service of the music, never gimmicky.

Towards the end of his extended set, just when I’m wondering if maybe I’ve had enough funk, he gives us a moving solo, introducing “Ouidah”, a composition about the centre of the slave trade in Benin.

By the second number (the funky “Virgin Forest”) he is already pushing his band. They respond with alacrity. Loueke’s solo, plus his distinctive vocal, is picked up by Makuzeni and Wyatt (old musical mates) and we’re well and truly off! Makuzeni bears out the bandleader’s praise of her sense of rhythm and harmony and her vocal improvisations are a wonder to hear; she is an inspired choice for this quintet. Wyatt is content to play a largely supporting yet inventive role on the mellow flugel, although he switches to the more upfront sound of the trumpet at one stage, as Cooper grabs his bass guitar for a harder edge.

Although the set features Loueke originals, it also includes a strong Wyatt composition, “The Space Between”. After a while, I stop making notes and just relish this joyous music, content to let it wash away the challenges of the day’s schedule. I also get a kick from observing Kyle Shepherd’s unbounded enjoyment of the music across the aisle from me.

There’s your endorsement, right there. Somehow the guitarist’s Blue Note recordings don’t do full justice to his music. This is the Loueke I love: irresistible compositions played with love and fire by five beautiful, accomplished musicians. This is a collaboration that really works. I wish they would record. Hint, hint.

Nigel Vermaas
Cue specialist writer

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