Tempted though we may be to ascribe to dazzling French guitarist Sylvain Luc the “Euro-jazzer” tag, the label is not only ill-fitting, but the musician neatly demonstrates the slipperiness of geo-typing jazz players. On Joko, Luc’s latest—and mostly acoustic—guitar-oriented album, the nimble-fingered and nuanced Gypsy-blooded Basque player broaches musical turf with roots in American and European influences, and ultimately opts for universality.
With strong players like pianist Jacky Terrasson, clarinetist Michel Portal and harmonica ace Olivier Ker-Ourio in tow, Luc covers the kind of chamber-folk-jazz terrain of Europe-inflected models like Oregon and Pat Metheny in his more unplugged moments—especially on “Folk Print” and “Gangui.”
But some of the most memorable stuff addresses the pop hit parade in surprising new ways. Opening with a pop-jazz one-two punch, the album starts with a guitar-piano version of “Light My Fire,” reharmonized and recontextualized—and, basically, revitalized (Terrasson, like Luc, is handy with revitalizing old tunes we thought we knew. Is it a French thing?). Next up, a jewel from the post-Beatles McCartney songbook, with the svelte “This Never Happened Before,” largely with muted strings. James Taylor’s “Mean Old Man” finds its naturally serpentine, jazz-hued melody taken on Ker-Ourio’s harmonica, which is also the melodic voice on Keith Jarrett’s “Coral,” a keening bittersweet ballad in new clothes here. The set closes with the sweet folkish lilt of “Le Roi Dans Les Bois,” in a juiced-up duo with Ker-Ourio.
On virtually every track, Luc’s guitaristic approach seems just right and technically adroit yet lubed with a propulsive swing and a poetic way with color. He also pursues textural variety by changing the arrangements, with focused work by drummer Pascal Rey, cellist Eric Longsworth and brothers Keyvan and Bijan Chemirani on assorted Iranian instruments.
If there’s any complaint about the smorgasbord effect of the 15-track program, it’s that it doesn’t allow Luc to stretch out as much as we’d like. But it becomes an episodic portrait of the artist in his full flower, a guitarist with taste and chops and that certain Gypsy-phonic je ne sai quoi that select Gypsy-jazz guitarists have accessed over the decades.