Lionel Loueke Trio at the Vermont Jazz Center: Jazz reconnects with its African roots
By Scott Ainslie
Scott Ainslie is a touring musician specializing in traditional acoustic Blues and original songs with strong North Carolina roots, who now lives in Brattleboro, VT. He performs at festivals, clubs and community concert series and presents teaching concerts on the African roots of American music in educational settings. Ainslie is on the road 150 – 180 days a year and enjoys hearing other musicians play his town when his schedule allows.
For more information on his work, visit his new site http://ScottAinslie.com and http://CattailMusic.com.
Photo by Eugene Uman
On Saturday, October 13th, Benin-born Jazz guitarist and vocalist Lionel Loueke, Nigerian bassist Michael Olatuja, and Brooklyn percussionist/drummer Mark Guiliana treated a full house at Brattleboro’s Vermont Jazz Center (VJC) to a diverse, virtuostic, dynamic and often beautifully lyric evening of music that pushed the boundaries of Jazz back across the Atlantic into the source cultures that fed and were impacted by the trans-Atlantic slave trade of the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.
I had a front row seat.
In the lobby, photographer and author Jean Germain was displaying and autographing her beautiful book, Jazz From Row 6. For 26 years, from a seat in row six at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center in Sarasota Florida, Germain photographed legendary musicians, many in their 80s and 90s, as they played the annual jazz festival. The resulting photos capture these lions of the music in impromptu performance shots. In support of the music and her hosts, Germain made arrangements to donate a portion of each book sale to encourage the pursuit of the music by younger musicians through the education fund at the VJC.
Local entrepreneur, Adam Gebb, was the concert’s sponsor. Gebb runs Cultural Intrigue, a Flat Street establishment that offers wholesale decorations and accessories that merge traditional Eastern-styles with modern Western trends. The company is committed to working directly with the people in Thailand, Bali, and India who actually make the products and minimizing their environmental footprint. Good stuff.
As the rustling from the crowd built and the seats filled in, I turned my attention to the gear on stage.
Here was Loueke’s Paul Reed Smith semi-hollow body electric resting quiet before a Fender amp, overseeing a raft of effects pedals and a vocal harmonizer; Olatuja’s five-string electric bass waiting to come to life (built by legendary NYC repairman Roger Sadowsky); and a modest drum kit (three drums, four cymbals) that, unbeknownst to us, Guiliana was about to turn into an African drum section replete with lead djembe-style solos built over a shifting array of meters, syncopations, and polyrhythms.
Loueke was born and raised in Benin, which is in the center of what was known in colonial times as the Gold Coast and before that the Slave Coast in sub-Saharan central west Africa. A quick look at the region finds a progression of nations and cultures important to African, American and now World Music. With Ghana and Togo to its west, Burkina Faso to the north and Nigeria to the east, Benin is firmly rooted in the culture of the Yoruba that exerts continuing influence in many Western Hemisphere nations.
The vibrant persistence of black cultures imported via the slave trade and the forced Yoruban diaspora into Caribbean Basin, Haiti, Cuba, Brazil and the American South that for centuries was downplayed is now unquestioned.
In Benin, Loueke’s older brother played guitar, but when he went to follow in his brother’s footsteps, it took a year to earn the $50 Loueke paid for his first guitar. New guitar strings had to be special ordered from Nigeria, so instead of doing that, Loueke cleaned his old strings with vinegar. And when strings broke, he replaced some of them with bicycle brake cables, which had to be hard on the fingers. He wanted to play.
Loueke’s first piece of the night was Ifé – the opening track for his latest recording Heritage.
Ifé is Yoruban for love and opened with Loueke turning himself into a sort of one-man Ladysmith Black Mambazo – using the vocal harmonizer on stage to transform his live solo vocals and mouth percussion into an African township choir with rhythmic accompaniment.
As a solo performer, I’ll confess my prejudice: the gadgetry gave me pause, but there was no attempt to trick the audience and Loueke’s inventive, infrequent, and masterful use of the harmonizer over the course of the evening won me over. My ears were happy.
Ifé built from harmonically amplified vocals to solo guitar – Loueke laying out the harmony still performing alone. A powerful funk bass line surfaced on guitar. With the electronic choir silenced, Loueke re-harmonized the reprise of his sung lines with single- and double-string figures on guitar. He picked the instrument with his bare hand, pounding and popping out bass parts with his thumb, pulling lead lines and arpeggios out of the upper strings with his fingers.
Fully six minutes into this solo tour-de-force, a rhythm section (that more than justified the name) entered the music. Loueke was joined by Olatuja’s tight, propulsive, chest-thumping bass lines and Guiliana’s astoundingly inventive rhythmic drumming.
A crescendoing cascade of dissonant chords ushered in a rest for Loueke as Olatuja took off in a bass solo that was declarative and expressive, both rhythmically and melodically. Loueke re-entered the trio with soaring, languorous lead lines reminiscent of King Sunny Adé’s juju music (the popular Nigerian music form assembled over traditional Yoruban rhythms).
Guiliana’s drumming then held the focus in the first of what were to be three or four of the most engaging drum solos I have ever heard. At rock concerts, the dreaded drum solo is a good time to go get a beer from the bar, if you haven’t had too many already. But at the VJC, no one could take their eyes or ears off Guiliana during these solos. His unassuming and musical use of the drums was a joy to see and to hear.
Though I was often amazed to have the silences in the musical patterns became the rhythmic pulses and hear Guiliana playing all around their empty places in the groove, the audience was fully engaged and never lost.
Each of these musicians seemed to be able to play around what was present in the initial statement of the piece, but absent in the music at the moment. Sometimes they seemed to be vying with each other to see who might leap most artfully in the spaces between the stones in the pathway that they were not playing.
I couldn’t have been more delighted.
By the end of the first piece, there was no question: we were in the hands of three masters and were destined for an inspiring evening of instrumental music. There wasn’t a single doubt in the room.
Having introduced the trio with long solo sections in the first piece, Loueke counted off the second piece, also from the Heritage CD – Farafina – and brought everyone in at the top of a highly asymmetrical and funky bass line that would have reminded me of James Brown, had Brown’s ancestors not been removed from Africa to Barnwell, South Carolina several hundred years before.
Farfina showed a strongly African organization, with structured and improvisational sections alternating with each other. The trio threaded their way fluidly through the various sections of each composition with gestures and eye contact.
As the trio played together and then soloed through these alternating sections, it was beautifully clear that their facility and technique on their instruments was in service to a deeply felt, well-connected musicality. This was true throughout the evening, even when the sounds became gestural and bordered on the chaotic. All evening, there remained a powerful understanding of the structures of the different pieces, and when noise was used, it was used not for its own sake, but to create drama, tension, and emotion.
Thoughout the evening, Loueke played wonderfully angular leads and arpeggios that would make Jazz guitar master John Scofield proud, with a rhythmic vitality that would make him jealous.
Olatuja’s bass playing was decidedly African: declarative, gestural, harmonically interesting and rhythmically vital. The actual tone of the instrument was tight and well-compressed which allowed the details of the faster passages in his playing to be rendered clearly and forcefully.
And more than once, I thought to myself, “No drummer should get to play a solo without going to school on Guiliana’s playing.” We should figure out a way for the fellow to give out licenses.
Now and again, suddenly and briefly, there were some Blues in the mix, too.
Often off-mic, Loueke sang along with a lot of his solo lines. His hands have long narrow fingers like Robert Johnson’s, and he finger-picked his leads like Albert King used to do.
The voice-like character of many of his solo lines reminded me of the call-and-response use of the guitar as a replying second voice in Blues and Gospel music. Though perfectly capable of busy, athletic playing, Loueke saves that for gestural dramatic sections that raise the emotional ante of the piece’s eventual resolution.
Loueke’s musical pilgrimage – from his Yoruban roots in Benin, to the Ivory Coast’s National Institute of Art, to Paris, and then on to a full scholarship at Berklee College of Music – was fully on display. His original works showed a rhythmic vitality that is part Yoruban and part Funk, and a harmonic language that – while inventive – fell easily into any contemporary understanding of Jazz idioms. At times, a flurry of descending arpeggios reminded me of the great African gourd harp, the kora, with it’s 21 strings and long history of shamanic associations.
The trio’s performance was also often seared with some of the energy of rock ‘n’ roll.
Loueke, Olatuja and Giuliana: Each of these players should be on your watch list. We call it “playing music,” but the playfulness these musicians engage as they approach the music, the audience and each other is a rare and wonderful thing to behold.
At intermission my host, Eugene Uman, invited me back to the green room to meet the musicians.
We opened the door to find them all playing on student instruments. Loueke had what looked like a quarter-sized six string electric plugged into one of those legendary Fender Champ amplifiers (a little bigger than a breadbox), Olatuja had a student five string bass powered up, and Guiliana was drumming on an empty, upturned 5 gallon plastic tofu bucket.
Uman wandered over to the piano and joined in, playing right hand figures. The improvisation ended in laughter and delight. Playing. Music.
As second set ended, the trio was rewarded with a two or three minute standing ovation. The persistence and palpable durability of the crowd’s enthusiasm did bring the band back onto the stage for a final, lyric coda to a wonderful evening of music.
This performance series at the Vermont Jazz Center continues to bring remarkable musicians to our little borough. Those who turn up at these concerts get a powerful taste of how lucky we are to have the VJC actively working in our community, and the valuable direction and connections that Eugene Uman brings to our table. While there are highly-valued sponsors, volunteers, students, and teachers who contribute to making this series a reality, the guiding vision is Uman’s.
The VJC is doing the good, hard work. It seems like the least we can do is to go down there and have a great time.
See you at the next one?
I certainly hope so.