An Understated, but Unwavering Groove: Lionel Loueke Trio at the Jazz Standard (September 13, 2013)

Performing compositions from his new recording, Heritage (Blue Note, 2012), Lionel Loueke and his trio are just finishing tonight a residency at the Jazz Standard. I attended the early set on Friday, September 13th, which Loueke began with “Ouidah,” singing and subvocalizing along with his guitar and its clear, ebullient tone. The tune’s groove—like the entire performance—remained hushed, relaxed, and never ostentatious, but clearly articulated and energized. The treble timbre in the upper range of Michael Olatuja‘s 5-string electric bass blended beautifully with Loueke’s voice and guitar, accenting both the composed, intricate unison passages, and the sympathetic interplay between the two musicians as their improvised lines crossed and interweaved. Throughout the show Olatuja demonstrated keen sensitivity and a high level of responsiveness to Loueke’s playing. Olatuja’s solo on “Ouidah” resembled Loueke’s in his use of sequential motives, but Olatuja stayed closer to the groove, contributing an adept improvisation while maintaining the tune’s foundation. An open vamp at the end left space for drummer John Davis, who demonstrated impeccable taste and beautiful technique there and during the entire set.

The highlight of the set was Loueke’s solo introduction to “Ifê,” which began with guitar work that, in timbre and musical ideas, simultaneously evoked steel-string delta blues, the crystalline polyphonics of a kora and the metallic percussiveness of an mbira. To this Loueke then added the tune’s vocal, harmonized via an electronic processor. Layering on both vocalized and on-the-fretboard percussion to the mix, Loueke stood apart from his live bandmates, performing as both choir and instrumental ensemble, rocking gently back and forth, in an astonishing solo display of orchestrated, virtuosic simultaneity. Raising the stakes even higher, Loueke then ushered the band in, launching into an afro-beat funk, anchored by Olatuja’s solid playing and joyous dancing.

With an exceedingly quiet and intensely subtle deliberateness, Loueke also began “Hope” by himself, with overtone lines on his guitar accompanying his voice in falsetto. Then with Olatuja and Davis Loueke repeated the tune’s melody several more times to great effect: by varying the range of his voice and guitar accompaniment—as well as the group dynamic—the songful repetitions spun out in successive waves and beckoned the listener into the musical fold. (In a performance that so clearly focused on making its impact through the repetition of one lyric, its effectiveness would have been further amplified if only Loueke had provided the audience with a translation before he began.) Olatuja’s solo here was bold, as he showed no apprehension pushing the band to a more intense, adventurous harmonic and dynamic space that segued nicely into a rock-inspired outro.

Loueke didn’t announce the final tune from the stage, but it also came from his new album: John Davis began “Farafina” with an extended performance at the drumkit in a full display of his talents, that, up to that point, had remained contained within the set’s rather quiet aesthetic. Thankfully Davis rose above the hushed dynamic and, bringing the eager audience along with him, launched into an inspired improvisation. Manipulating timbre, melodic sequence, and rhythmic play, Davis wove together a rich polyphony of intricate motives in clear dialogue with one another. Building voiceparts into his solo (much like Loueke had earlier in “Ifê”), Davis displayed mastery of polyrhythmic interplay, subtly experimenting with the rhythmic expansion and diminution of his ideas over an unwavering bass-drum line. Joining the funk groove that Davis established at the end of his solo, Loueke and Olatuja performed the tune’s composed melody in unison, before Loueke embarked on a solo improvisation that progressed very deliberately. Never short on inventive ideas—in part because, in their playing, Olatuja and Davis were both highly attentive and complimentary to his every gesture—Loueke built the ensemble, groove, and performance up to a jazz fusion, prog-rock climax, punctuated by another outro vamp over which Davis added one last torrent of polyphonic artistry.

The album Heritage includes several other collaborators—most notably album producer and pianist Robert Glasper and vocalist Gretchen Parlato. However, inasmuch as Glasper and Parlato add important and complementary aspects to the recording, Friday night’s performance sounded neither empty nor lacking. On the contrary, the long-standing and well acquainted trio displayed a high level of collaborative artistry, accented by Loueke’s compositions realized with the group’s focused, mutual sensitivity to one another’s playing and a hushed intensity that, though stripped-down, produced an enjoyable and memorable set.

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