Before & After With Lionel Loueke

The guitarist-vocalist listens to Ella, Prince, B.B. and more

Lionel Loueke image 0
Mathieu Bitton

Lionel Loueke

Benin-born, New York-based guitarist and vocalist Lionel Loueke visited Washington, D.C., in late April to play the White House, as part of this year’s International Jazz Day celebration. Taking a break from rehearsals for that historic all-star concert, he seemed to enjoy the challenge of this listening session, even taking notes on unfamiliar artists-Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Sonny Sharrock-for follow-up research. The world was still reeling from the sudden passing of Prince the week prior, so we included a track by The Artist in order to learn about his reputation in Africa. Loueke, 43, continues to tour internationally behind his recent live trio recording, GAÏA, released on Blue Note.

1. Robert Glasper

“Junior’s Jam” (from Miles Ahead: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Columbia/Legacy). Glasper, keyboard; Keyon Harrold, trumpet; Marcus Strickland, tenor saxophone; Burniss Earl Travis II, bass; Kendrick Scott, drums. Recorded in 2015.

BEFORE: I love it. It reminds me of Fela Kuti. Definitely some Afrobeats, like Jùjú. I think the trumpet player may be Avishai Cohen, because I’ve played with him for a while. The sound reminds me of Avishai. And if it’s Avishai, the pianist may be Jason Lindner. The phrasing I don’t know, but for sure those are young guys. The way they’re playing is more of what’s going on these days. There’s a lot of risk taking, more than just pocket playing. My generation, for sure.

AFTER: Oh. [laughs] Yeah, I know Keyon. Well, it makes sense. Young guys taking risks. I said Jason Lindner because of that rhythmic pattern; the loop going on over and over, and of course Glasper does that a lot. I want to check out the film. One of my CDs is called Heritage, and I coproduced it with Glasper. We had a few tunes with this kind of vibe, this Afrobeat.

2. Ella Fitzgerald

“Azure” (from Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook, Verve). Fitzgerald, vocals; Barney Kessel, guitar. Recorded in 1957.

BEFORE: The first thing that comes to my mind is Ella. The guitar is hard to tell because there’s no improvisation, just chords. But this is not a young guy. My first guess might be Herb Ellis. I won’t say Joe Pass, because he would be moving around the neck more. I can hear the big jazz guitar, the woody sound. It’s a beautiful song. I’ve heard it before. I think I played this song when I was in school in Paris. I think for homework I was given this melody to reharmonize.

AFTER: Wow. Well, I didn’t think about Barney Kessel because usually he’s more electric oriented. His sound is usually a little brighter. I love it. Ella is my favorite singer of all time. If I had to choose just one singer, it’s her. I love the timbre of her voice, and the phrasing is amazing. She reminds me of a bebop horn player. For me, it’s beyond just the vocal approach to the music. And I played this tune with Gretchen [Parlato]. We played it in 5/4.

3. Kenny Burrell

“Chitlins Con Carne” (from Midnight Blue, Blue Note). Burrell, guitar; Stanley Turrentine, tenor saxophone; Major Holley, bass; Billy English, drums; Ray Barretto, percussion. Recorded in 1963.

BEFORE: [laughs] Love it. An old soul. I think without hesitation it’s Kenny Burrell. He’s easy to recognize by his phrasing, you know? Kind of question and answer: the question being the melody and the answer being the chord. That’s one of the things I remembered when I started transcribing-the space and the singing. Never flashy, never crazy technique. And I love his tone; it’s modern, even today. It’s one of the reasons I play with my fingers. It’s that acoustic sound with his right hand, the way he attacks the string. He gets a crispy, percussive sound. The saxophone is a little harder. Maybe Stanley Turrentine? They played a lot together.

AFTER: Woo! When I was at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Los Angeles, Kenny Burrell was teaching at UCLA. Beautiful.

4. B.B. King

“Every Day I Have the Blues” (from Singin’ the Blues, Crown). King, guitar, vocals; unidentified band. Recorded in 1955.

BEFORE: I recognize the phrasing. At the beginning I thought it sounded like a young B.B. King. But I don’t think it is because I don’t hear the vibrato. I don’t know, maybe Muddy Waters? It’s amazing to hear how every musician with the same five notes has a different approach. This is very clear; it’s not just the notes, it’s the rhythm behind the notes. And he uses that same phrase [sings it]. I’ve heard this phrase many times, I just can’t remember where.

AFTER: Man. Then it’s a very young B.B. King. Yeah, he does that phrase but he usually has a vibrato, and I’m not hearing the vibrato on the end of the notes. He’s my favorite blues player because I started playing blues with his records back in Benin.

Which records?

I can’t remember because these were compilation cassettes. But I learned a lot from him, and even today some people tell me they hear B.B. King in my phrasing. It stays with you. And what I love about him is that in two or three notes he says it all. There’s so much depth behind every note. We don’t need to play that many if we can say it with two or three. He’s like a poet. But I guess that’s why it was so familiar. I’ve heard it many times. Very deep.

5. Julian Lage

“I’ll Be Seeing You” (from Arclight, Mack Avenue). Lage, guitar; Scott Colley, bass; Kenny Wollesen, drums. Recorded in 2015.

BEFORE: This is a young guy with a traditional soul. I’m pretty sure it’s somebody from my generation. I’m trying to remember his name. He went to Berklee and he mostly plays acoustic. He played with Gary Burton for a while. He’s a good friend, too, so it’s a shame I can’t remember his name. This guitarist reminds me of somebody who likes Jim Hall; the playing, the phrasing, the use of space, the chords. Almost like a piano player. The trio reminds me of a Bill Evans kind of trio interplay, which you can also hear in Brad Mehldau’s trio. I love it because it gives a different role to the bassist and drummer. They’re not there just to comp. Everybody’s comping, everybody’s soloing. Everyone’s focused and listening in order to do that. The listening level helps give that space to let things happen.

AFTER: Exactly. It had to be him. I love him because he’s got his own sound yet he’s digested the vocabulary from the past and put it out on his own. Actually, I’ve never heard him with this little kind of distortion. But I still recognize him because there’s a mic in front of the guitar, which is something that’s done a lot in our generation today. [Ed. note: This setup was used during recording but only the amps can be heard on the album.] Jim Hall also did that, so you can hear the acoustic sound of it. I can hear the influence and he learned his lessons big time.

6. Ben Monder

“Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” (from Amorphae, ECM). Monder, guitar; Paul Motian, drums. Recorded in 2010.

BEFORE: Wow. I think it’s Bill Frisell. I can’t think of anyone else who could do that. Whoever it is should write movie scores. When I’m listening, I see all these images.

Images of what?

I see an image from heaven; I see an image from hell. I see turbulence. The beginning sounds like Bill, the crispiness of the guitar and the voicing and clarity of the chords. If this guy was in front of me I would ask what kind of reverb that is. There’s a big sense of space, and the long tones, all reminded me of Bill Frisell. I like the drummer because he’s not taking too much of that space. It would be easy to cover the space and he’s not doing that. It sounds like something Paul Motian would do. Playing less means more. It matches perfectly with the sound of the guitar without overpowering, especially when the reverb gets cranked up. Maybe it’s the way they mixed it, but the drums are not in my face. And I like that.

AFTER: I love Ben, but it’s hard to recognize him here because it’s more about sound than notes. If he was playing more notes I could hear the difference between him and Bill. The way he set up the chords in the beginning, I knew he was influenced by Bill Frisell, but [Monder] has his own unique sound and phrasing when improvising. OK, so this is the ECM reverb? I know [ECM Records founder and producer Manfred Eicher] uses his TC-Helicon reverb. I think Ben Monder should write movie scores. This takes me far. I like when that happens-when musicians take you to that place. And he did. I’ve got to check it out.

7. Luciana Souza

“Amulet” (from Tide, Verve). Souza, vocals; Larry Koonse, guitar; Paul Simon, composer. Released in 2009.

BEFORE: Woo! The voice sounds familiar. Somebody I play with. Luciana Souza? It’s the timbre, especially at the end of each phrase. The guitar, it’s hard to tell. It sounds like the composer of the piece is a guitar player.

Because of the intervals?

Just the way the guitarist plays the phrases, it sounds like something he wrote. And because of the open strings. If he didn’t [write this], then his interpretation is fantastic. As a piece of music it feels great. It gets me even closer to what I’m listening to because it’s full of surprises; I don’t know what’s coming next. And it’s through-composed. It’s like a classical composition, in a way. Very well played. It’s modern. I love it because it kept my interest more and more to find out where it was going. The way they played the phrases together sounds like one instrument. Really well done.

AFTER: Wow. I know Larry from L.A. I would have never guessed that. I love the guitar sound. I knew it wasn’t Romero [Lubambo], because it’s not his phrasing. Now I’m curious about who wrote it. Larry is my favorite guitarist on the West Coast. I saw him live and he was also teaching. I almost studied with him when I was in L.A. I always liked his phrasing. Luciana is easy to recognize. No matter what the instrument, if I can recognize the sound, that’s what it’s about. Luciana has this amazing approach to the line. I’ve been playing with her for two years. Her phrasing is unique-perfect intonation. She’ll use a little bit of vibrato as the note is dying. She used to teach ear training. She’s got a great ear, so she can sing that kind of phrasing. I love Luciana.

8. Adam Rudolph’s Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra

“Specular” (from Turning Towards the Light, Cuneiform). Rudolph, conductor, composer; Rez Abbasi, Nels Cline, Liberty Ellman, David Gilmore, Jerome Harris, Joel Harrison, Miles Okazaki, Marvin Sewell, Kenny Wessel, electric guitars, effects; Marco Cappelli, acoustic guitar, effects; Damon Banks, electric bass. Recorded in 2014.

BEFORE: I definitely don’t know who this is. It’s a different type of movie. [laughs] If I were producing this, I would start with fewer guitars and add one by one. There’s a loop and different layers of loop. There are backward guitar effects. This guitar player reminds me of a young lady I’ve seen once at the Newport Jazz Festival. I can’t remember her name. Something like Ferguson?

Mary Halvorson?

Exactly. That’s who I might think of for this type of playing and style. But I have no idea.

AFTER: Yes, I know Adam. A percussionist, right? Whoa. I thought I would recognize at least David Gilmore. First, it doesn’t sound like [several] guitar players; it sounds like one guitar player overdubbed. That’s the way I was hearing it-like one guy using distortion here and a more clean sound there. So the phrasing, it sounds to me like the same guy, which is very interesting and makes it even better, like they’re zooming in the same direction. I would think with nine guitar players they’d all bring something totally different. But this is more like one guy overdubbing, which is more interesting.

9. Sister Rosetta Tharpe

“Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” (from Le Hot Club de France Archive Series, Milan). Sister Rosetta Tharpe, electric guitar, vocal. Recorded c. mid-1960s.

BEFORE: [makes surprised, appreciative facial expressions] Another old soul. That reminds me of church. The singer sounds like a black lady, but I don’t know who she is. She’s also the guitarist? Wow. I love her playing, but I really love her singing. It touches me straight in my heart. The strength of her voice; it’s raw. That’s what I like about it. Raw and very powerful, and so in tune.

AFTER: Never heard of her. I’ve got to check her out. I love that.

10. Liberty Ellman

“Supercell” (from Radiate, Pi). Ellman, guitar, composer; Steve Lehman, alto saxophone; Jonathan Finlayson, trumpet; Jose Davila, tuba; Damion Reid, drums. Recorded in 2014.

BEFORE: Hmm. The composition reminds me of Steve Coleman. Each guy plays his part and it works, but it doesn’t leave too much room for improvisation. These are young guys for sure. Sounds like New York. Sounds like it might be the guitar player’s band. I like the role of the tuba in the composition. I’m not familiar with the guitarist, but it sounds like somebody I’ve heard before. It sounds like the parts were written down, with some areas of improvisation. The guitar player reminds me of somebody named Elmer or Ellman something. I don’t know him that well. But I think I’ve heard one or two tunes from him.

AFTER: Yes. Good. I think I like it for … [P]ut it this way, I won’t hear this for too long. But I think the composition is great. And having the tuba in place of bass gives it a whole different texture. I would love to play with tuba. It’s a great idea.

11. Prince & the Revolution

“Kiss” (from Parade, Paisley Park). Prince, vocals, various instruments; Craig Powell, guitar; Tony Christian, keyboards; Aaron Keith, Marr Star, drums; Mazarati, Kevin Patrick, backing vocals. Recorded in 1985.

BEFORE: Oh! [starts dancing in his seat, first bobbing his head, followed by his limbs] Doesn’t matter who you are-you hear this, you gotta dance. Besides being a great singer, the space he leaves between the instruments is another example of less is always better. Somebody else would fill up the space with horns. This is so groovin’ with bass drum, snare and a little guitar there. I remember the first time I heard this was in Africa, and I didn’t know anything about Prince. I thought it was a woman singing until he came down from the head voice, and I said, “Damn!” [laughs]

Was he popular in Africa?

Not like Michael [Jackson]. Even today you go to some villages and people know Michael but they don’t know Prince. Michael would be on the radio, but not Prince. We knew who Michael was; I even played Michael’s songs. But I never played Prince. I discovered Prince later on.

Do you have any favorite Prince songs?

I like most of the stuff that everybody likes. The guitar solo on “Purple Rain” is unbelievable. He’s one of the greatest guitar players ever, in addition to being a great singer and composer. He reminds me a lot of Jimi Hendrix; the energy behind him. Of course you have your eyes open and you see him play and there’s a whole gestural thing. But even when I close my eyes, the vibration of the notes, the force behind the notes and the sound is just like Hendrix. He sounds very comfortable moving through the neck. You can hear he spent a long time working on the instrument. He can play everything, but especially guitar.

12. Sonny Sharrock

“Little Rock” (from Ask the Ages, Axiom/M.O.D.). Sharrock, guitar; Pharoah Sanders, tenor saxophone; Charnett Moffett, bass; Elvin Jones, drums. Released in 1991; reissued in 2015.

BEFORE: To be honest, I was listening more to the drummer than the guitarist. Unless I’m mistaken, it’s Elvin. It’s his time, the way he divides his time between the bass drum and the snare. I always recognize that about Elvin-kind of laidback, with a movement that’s really unique. The saxophone sounds familiar. At some point I thought it was Coltrane but then I knew it wasn’t. Some of the phrasing was like Coltrane, but not the rhythm. But definitely it’s somebody from the same generation, or someone who was very influenced by Coltrane. The guitarist, I have no clue. To be honest, it doesn’t touch me. It could be anybody. I got the spirit behind it, the blues, but it doesn’t have the soul I was hoping for. It doesn’t speak to me.

AFTER: Never heard of him. Please write that one down for me.

13. Tabu Ley Rochereau & Orchestra African Fiesta

“Madina” (from The Sound of Kinshasa: Guitar Classics From Zaire, Original Music). Tabu Ley Rochereau, vocals; unidentified orchestra members. Recorded c. 1950s-60s.

BEFORE: That sounds like the music I grew up with. I think it’s Congo, though I don’t think they’re singing in Lingala. But it’s Congo rumba. The voice of the backing singer rings more bells than the lead singer. Could be Tabu Ley Rochereau, that generation of musicians. That’s where soukous [a popular style of Congolese dance music] comes from. My father had those records, so I grew up listening to that. Back home I had an Afropop band and we were playing all those old songs. So I grew up with that sound.

AFTER: [laughs] I was too young to have seen them live. Franco [Luambo] was one of my favorites. They had great guitar players, you know? Even the generation that followed. And still, for African guitar style you’ve got to go to Congo or Cameroon.

Do you know Diblo Dibala?

Of course. That was my guy. Franco was the older generation, but my generation was playing Diblo Dibala. I memorized his solos. Even until today, if you go to Benin and talk to my friends, they used to call me Diblo because I was playing just like him.

Have you met him?

I’ve never met him. He lives in Paris. But I’ve got a friend who’s a friend of his, and he says Diblo wants to meet me. I can’t wait. He’s really my hero. I would love to record with him. His lines are intricate, very complicated. I’ve seen him play and he can play just as fast as the recordings. I love Diblo.

When you were in Benin learning to play music and you imagined life as a professional musician, is the reality much different?

It is different. To tell you the truth, I never thought that I would be living in Europe, much less in the U.S., having a chance to play with Herbie [Hancock], Sting, going to the White House. Stuff like that wasn’t part of my dream. My dream was to play with the most popular bands back home. And I did that. But

I never thought about touring outside the continent. So that was my dream.

Do you still have dreams?

Oh yeah. Absolutely. There are many other musicians I would love to play with, like Sonny Rollins or Roy Haynes. Even if I don’t play with them but just pass time with them. I feel I’m so lucky to be able to play with so many generations-with Herbie, Marcus Miller, Jeff “Tain” [Watts], Jeff Ballard and all the young guys. I remember one gig with Herbie and the Headhunters, and I was in a room with all these musicians who had played with Miles-Kenny Garrett, Marcus Miller-and they were all telling stories about Miles. It’s inspiring. My heroes, Wayne [Shorter] and Herbie, are telling me their stories and it’s from the source. Just to be in a bus with Herbie for 15 hours, these stories are unbelievable. It’s beyond the notes. The notes are just 10, 15 percent of what we do. It’s the spirit behind the note. And you can’t get the spirit without passing time with those guys. I feel that’s what we’re missing in our generation, because of music schools and the music becoming intellectual instead of coming from here [points to his heart]. It’s the connection with the soul.

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