Lionel Loueke: Mwaliko

The innovative fingerstyle guitarist (and singer) from Benin focuses largely on a series of intimate duets for his second Blue Note outing, and his partners make for some intriguing choices. His good friend and fellow Benin native Angelique Kidjo appears on two tracks, the triumphant opener “Ami O” and the traditional Benin folk tune “Vi Ma Yon,” both elevated by her spirited, belting vocals. His duet with bassist-singer Esperanza Spalding on “Twins” is upbeat and thoroughly engaging, as one might expect, while his collaboration with electric bass virtuoso and vocalist Richard Bona on the classically influenced “Wishes” is surprisingly restrained. Bona returns for the good-humored “Hide Life,” which is far looser and positively infectious (and features the bassist creating a kind of one-man Ladysmith Black Mambazo through multiple overdubbed vocal parts). Spalding reappears on “Flying” and provides some sizzle with her simultaneous scatting and upright playing, while Loueke’s muted fingerpicking and clicking vocals-a technique borrowed from South African Bushmen-lend a distinctly African feel.

One of the more intriguing duets is an expansive version of Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti” played with the sensational young drummer Marcus Gilmore, and performed by Loueke with paper woven between his strings to achieve a percussive effect. Between Loueke’s daring harmonic choices and Gilmore’s exquisite touch on the kit, this track is a gem.

Loueke also performs three highly interactive pieces with his working trio of bassist Massimo Biolcati and drummer Ferenc Nemeth. Loueke’s “Griot,” Nemeth’s “L.L.” and Biolcati’s “Shazoo” all lean toward the jazzier side of the spectrum, revealing a decided Jim Hall influence in Loueke’s playing, along with a penchant for provocative guitar-synth work. An all-too-brief 44-second unaccompanied interlude, “Dangbe,” suggests that there may also be a solo guitar outing in Loueke’s future. Six-string fans can only hope.

Originally Published