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Lionel Loueke: Karibu

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On their third album together (and first for Blue Note), guitarist Lionel Loueke, who hails from Benin, West Africa, Hungarian drummer Ferenc Nemeth and Swedish/Italian bassist Massimo Biolcati deliver a set of exquisitely played songs that largely lay flat until guests Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter inject some life into them. It’s not that the core trio lacks talent-not by any means. Loueke’s lines are smartly formed and deftly executed. His ear-friendly melodicism draws both from traditional African sources and a lifetime of closely studying the likes of Jim Hall and George Benson, and his rhythmic shifts come quickly and packed with surprises. Biolcati especially is a proactive player, and Nemeth’s skipping, airy touch injects the proceedings with a worldliness one would expect from such an international cast.

But, agreeable as it all is, they never really cook on their own. Loueke’s device of complementing his lead lines identically with wordless vocalizing gets old fast, and although his solos are brisk and colorful, his compositions are samey and lack spark. That all changes on the tracks featuring Hancock and Shorter. Loueke virtually steps aside as Hancock delivers his fiery solo on “Seven Teens,” bringing to it an element of edgy flightiness; when, for the last two minutes, Hancock and Loueke engage in conversation, the dialogue is elevated, and their intuitive split-second timing makes one long for a full album by the pair. On Coltrane’s “Naima,” an opening minute so quiet as to be nearly inaudible is jolted by Shorter’s soprano saxophone, inspiring some of the most adventurous playing of the disc by Loueke and co. And when both Shorter and Hancock spend 10 minutes with the trio on the appropriately titled “Light-Dark,” they take the music places it’s begging to go on the tracks they don’t endow.