Lionel Loueke, a guitarist, percussionist and vocalist who moved to the United States from the West African nation of Benin, has crafted a suite of songs that blends American-style jazz elements with traditional African rhythms and voicings. The music is tranquil, contemplative and utterly compelling. The bass of Massimo Biolcati and the percussion of Cyro Baptista and Ferenc Nemeth are sometimes barely audible over Loueke’s gentle fingering and vocals, which in the cases of “Rossignol,” “Vivi” and several others are matched up with singer Gretchen Parlato. Herbie Hancock, with whom Loueke is touring these days, repays the favor with a couple of stunning duets, first on the slow, mournful “Le Reveal des Agneaux” and later on “La Poursuite du Lion,” a jumpy, energetic number that has the pianist pulling all sorts of neat phrases out of his grab bag and throwing them against Loueke’s rhythmic strumming.
The title track, which closes the album, is a wonder to behold. The interaction of percussionists and vocalists creates a thicket of forest noises—insects, birds, the very breeze—that vaguely recalls Dave Holland’s “Conference of the Birds.” Virgin Forest is a slice of peaceful beauty and tempered excitement, full of innocence and optimism.