A life in between worlds: Lionel Loueke

Boston Globe, May 2, 2008

NEW YORK – It’s your basic immigrant success story, really: A young man grows up in a faraway country, feels the call of a challenging vocation, sets his eyes upon a dream. He works with relentless purpose and finds his way to America where, under the tutelage of masters in his field, he becomes, at just 35, a master in his own right.

Hoary as it might be, that immigrant narrative encapsulates the journey of Lionel Loueke, the native of Benin, West Africa, who has become the preeminent young star of jazz guitar, and who performs with his trio at Regattabar on Thursday.

With a widely praised new album, “Karibu” (see review on D16), that features as guests no less revered a pair of jazz icons than pianist Herbie Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, Loueke has barreled into the jazz prime time. And he’s done so wielding an instrument that, in jazz, often either noodles its way into the background or instead becomes a weapon for arena-scaled pyrotechnics.

No such danger here. “Karibu” is clearly a guitarist’s album, but one on which Loueke exerts his authority with grace, whether stutter-stepping through the intricacies of “Skylark,” shepherding an airy reappraisal of Coltrane’s “Naima,” or convening his jazz-centered bandmates in the African highlife groove of “Nonvignon.”

In Loueke’s touch, you feel the influence of his touchstone among guitarists: Wes Montgomery. In Montgomery, Loueke explains during a chat at the Blue Note label office here, he recognizes not just technique, but soul. “I feel I can know his heart, his emotions,” Loueke says. “It touches me deeply. And he was so far ahead of his time.”

It was a guitar great of a more funk-infused style, George Benson, who awakened Loueke to jazz. The teenage Loueke, the son of schoolteachers, was devoted to African pop, particularly soukous, with its exhilarating “sebene” segments of hot guitar grooves and chanted exhortations. Of Congolese legends like Franco or Rochereau, he knew a great deal; of Miles or Monk or Coltrane, absolutely nothing.

But one day he chanced upon a Benson cassette and was mesmerized: “It was different from anything I’d ever heard up to that point,” he says. “Not just the technique, also the phrasing, the scales, the harmony, everything. I didn’t even realize he was improvising.”

Loueke began to frequent the French cultural center in Cotonou for its library of jazz recordings. He listened constantly, he says, and every day from early in the morning he tried to practice what he heard, to the bemusement of his family and friends.

Loueke’s family supported him, he says, once they accepted that his obsession was also his firm choice of craft. He enrolled in a program in Abidjan, the main city of Ivory Coast and a regional capital for French-speaking West Africa, where he learned to read and write music and received basic classical training.

The next stop was Paris, where a relative assembled a list of music schools. One, Loueke says, was American-run. His choice was made: America was jazz’s home. It was a fortuitous selection, as some of the school’s professors had ties to Berklee College of Music. After several years in Paris, Loueke arrived in Boston.

Berklee, Loueke says, gave him teachers who were themselves guitarists. It produced his partnership with trio mates Massimo Biolcati and Ferenc Nemeth. And it exposed this compulsive learner to the full breadth and depth of the jazz landscape. “I learned a lot in terms of vocabulary, standards, all the things I needed,” Loueke says.

But amid the cornucopia of opportunity there was also a danger.

“What I was missing was that it wasn’t about developing my own approach and personality,” Loueke says. “It was about getting the information. I was accumulating information instead of taking the essentials and moving on.”

By the end of his time at Berklee, Loueke says, he could play like any number of titans of jazz guitar – but less and less like himself. “I was playing a lot of licks, because I had to transcribe John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny. I started missing my own personality.”

Loueke says he re-listened to old tapes of himself playing, much earlier in his education. The exercise restored his balance. Since then, first on last year’s “Virgin Forest,” for which he traveled to Benin to work with traditional percussionists, and now with sharpened jazz acumen on “Karibu,” he has recaptured that initial delight of an African teenager turning on to jazz for the first time.

Only now he’s doing it as a new star who is also a member of Hancock’s band, with whom he’ll be touring this summer behind Hancock’s Grammy-winning “River: The Joni Letters.” Now ensconced in the habits of a first-call jazz performer, Loueke says he lives between worlds.

“I even feel like an immigrant back home,” he says. “People there don’t treat me the way they used to. And I’m definitely at home here, but I’m also a stranger at the same time. I’m a citizen of the world and from nowhere at the same time.”

But the underlying moments of alienation pale next to the pinch-me quality of Loueke’s achievements. And he knows it.

“There’s one kind of dream where you think that if you put in the effort, you can realize it someday,” he says. “There’s another kind of dream that you don’t even think about because it just won’t happen. To be recording on Blue Note, with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter – it’s even beyond a dream.”