Lionel Loueke – Heritage ★★★★

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Blue Note
Lionel Loueke (g,v), Derrick Hodge (el b), Mark Giuliana (d), Robert Glasper (p, kys), and Gretchen Parlato (v).
Rec. date not stated

Following two excellent recordings for Blue Note and extensive tours with Herbie Hancock, the gifted, idiosyncratic New York-based Benin guitarist-vocalist returns with an album for which the major U.S.P. is the fact that it is produced by label mate and black-music-all-areas maverick du jour, Robert Glasper. Loueke’s signature is one of limitless rhythmic invention and textural nuance, whereby a tapestry of string lines weaves around a voice replete with note bending whispers and muted flickers that make it sound like Harmon-filtered brass. The other stylistic trait that marks the music is Loueke’s dramatic switch of tone, from electric to a synth sound that is close to an organ, the effect of which lends a distinctly purring, crying quality to the leader’s motifs, and is particularly effective when the change occurs at the climactic point of an improvisation.

These primary elements are still intact but the vital new addition is the strength of the backbeat. The combined attack of Mark Giuliana and Derrick Hodge’s drums and bass lends considerable muscle to many of the tracks which, given the harder, grittier, funkier slant, practically places the music in a kind of Headhuntersin-Africa zone. Subtle shadings of backing vocal from Gretchen Parlato also up the general soulfulness amid the spiraling riffs. Glasper’s keys and piano on a number of tracks effectively underline the Herbie heritage, but there is sufficient character in the melodies and solos to carry the work well beyond any possible pastiche. Few artists combine African music and jazz in such an original, left-of-centre way, making the results much more than a putative Afro-jazz.

– Kevin Le Gendre