It’s 11 A.M. in Australia, and one of the world’s most innovative and sought-after guitarists is jet-lagged. His thick, warm Beninese accent rumbles through the phone line. “It’s been very exciting out here, one of the most incredible times in my life. But it’s exhausting.”
Nominally, Loueke lives in New York, but this sleepy April morning finds him in Adelaide on tour with pianist Herbie Hancock. He’ll be back in the States for a few days, but then it’s off to Paris for a gig with Bobby McFerrin and a likely redeye for more U.S. dates with Hancock. In the midst of all this, Loueke hopes to start work on what will likely be his as yet unnamed debut on Blue Note while promoting his most recent album, Virgin Forest (Obliqsound). He should be forgiven for needing a moment to catch his breath. In the past two years, Loueke has produced a pair of solo releases, one trio session, and performed on at least 18 other albums as a sideman for jazz greats like bassist Charlie Haden, trumpeter Terence Blanchard and Hancock.
Lionel Loueke (pronounce LEE-o-nel loo-A-kay) was born in West Africa, where he initially gravitated toward the drums. “I played percussion from 11 to 17, avidly my concept of the guitar has always been different because of that,” he says. “Besides the harmonic and melodic aspects, I have a rhythmic approach that has, I think, altered my understanding of the instrument. The way I hear music is more percussive, more rhythmic than anything.” Indeed, while Loueke effortlessly shifts among multiple styles and techniques in his songs, the consistent hallmark of his playing is a uniquely African sound of sharp and vibrant plucked strings, reminiscent of a thumb piano or a kora.
“My brother had a guitar and he was playing it all the time,” Loueke recalls. “He would give it to me once in a while and show me the chords. If I think about that being how I started, it’s funny: I could just as well be playing piano. It wasn’t the instrument that I chose, just the one that was around. It was only later, when I was 19 and after two years of playing, that I consciously decided that I liked it and that I didn’t want to change and start over again.”
This is a pattern Loueke has continued to follow in his professional life his passion for music outstrips specificities of instrument, tactics or genre. Passion has driven Loueke along a path from autodidact beginnings to a dozen years of intensive musical study—first on the Ivory Coast, then to Paris, next in Boston and finally, and fatefully, in Los Angeles and the Thelonious Monk School Of Jazz, where Loueke stunned his peers and professors with his diligence, experimentation and versatility. In effect, he was working backwards. Rather than follow the traditional artist’s method of years of formal training culminating with the flowering of an individual style, Lionel entered the university setting uniquely formed, layering on new influences and approaches as tools rather than stepping stones.
At the Monk School, Loueke struck up personal relationships with many players he continues to work with, including bassist Massimo Biolcati, percussionist Ferenc Nemeth and vocalist Gretchen Parlato. “When I first met Gretchen, we played together and saw each other almost every day for two years,” he says. “From the beginning, we had a real connection, a natural chemistry. She’s the only singer that I never have to account for or change the way I play the guitar and the voice are so well balanced that no one is ever out in front. We complete each other.”
Equally important to his development was the impression Lionel left on the school’s esteemed faculty. At a live show in January, the Grammy-winning trumpeter Terence Blanchard introduced Loueke with an anecdote relating how he and Hancock had rushed to be the first to invite the guitarist on tour. Blanchard got to him first in 2002, but it’s Hancock who guests on Lionel’s<