Writing in The New York Times, Jon Pareles recounts the experience of hearing the guitarist Lionel Loueke perform at Bonnaroo: ”Loueke is a gentle virtuoso. As a singer, he has a husky, sincere baritone and a melting falsetto that he uses to scat-sing along with his guitar solos. He’s also a full-fledged jazz guitarist, and he uses both electronics–guitar synthesizer, looping devices–and African roots. In one piece, unassisted by any technology beyond microphone and amplifier, he sang, made percussive tongue clicks and played syncopated guitar chords and leads. He multiplied himself, one way or another, in nearly every song.”
Lionel didn’t pick up a guitar for the first time until age 17. Growing up in Benin, West Africa, he was exposed to the instrument through the example of an older brother, who performed with a local Afro-Pop band. Showing a talent for the instrument early, Lionel began to investigate both the popular and traditional music of his homeland, but a George Benson recording immediately shifted his direction towards jazz.
The story of how the guitarist got his first gig is best told in his own words:
I was a student [at the National Institute of Art in the Ivory Coast], and I couldn’t pay my rent so they kicked me out, and I needed to get a gig so bad[ly]. So there was a club, and I tried so many times to get a gig there. So one night I just went to the club because I was desperate. I didn’t have anything. I needed money to survive. The band took a break, during the break I went on stage, I picked up the guy’s guitar and I start playing. They came to me and tried to grab back the instrument. And the manager said ‘No, let him play.’ So after I played the manager said ‘Man, you want a gig?!’ [laughs] That was my first gig, and I carried that gig for two years!
To continue his studies, Lionel travelled to Paris to attend the American School of Modern Music before receiving a scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston. While in Boston, he met two musicians who would become lifelong collaborators: the bassist Massimo Biolcati, and the drummer Ferenc Nemeth. After graduation, the three musicians found that their paths forward were intertwined: they were all accepted to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, where they toured internationally for two years under the direction of Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Terence Blanchard.
As a sideperson, Lionel has been sought after by some of the worlds’ greatest artists. Both Blanchard and Hancock have featured Lionel in their ensembles in performance and on recordings. The guitarist appears on two of Blanchard’s albums for Blue Note (Bounce and Flow), as well as on Herbie Hancock’s Possibilities (Vector/Hear Music), River: The Joni Letters (Verve), and The Imagine Project (Sony), and continues to play an integral role in Hancock’s quartet. River was awarded the GRAMMY for Album of the Year in 2008. Lionel has also been featured in the groups of Angelique Kidjo, Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Wayne Shorter, Richard Bona, Sting, Santana, and many, many others.
As a leader, the guitarist has recorded two highly acclaimed albums for Blue Note: Karibu (2008) and Mwaliko (2010). He also has three releases as a leader or co-leader (of Gilfema, along with Massimo and Ferenc) available via the ObliqSound imprint. He’s also been playing in various settings at The Jazz Gallery since he first arrived in New York. One such occasion featured a duet with the drummer Mark Guiliana, which, along with a duet with the drummer Marcus Gilmore on Mwaliko, foreshadowed this weekend’s run of concerts, in which the guitarist will engage a different drummer in the duo setting each night. On Thursday night, Lionel will trade blows with Nate Smith; Friday will feature Jeff “Tain” Watts; and Saturday will see the return of Mark Guiliana.
Watch the first of three videos of the aforementioned duo engagement between Lionel and Mark, and listen to said duet version of Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti” from Mwaliko, this time featuring another drummer, Marcus Gilmore.