Originally from the small West African nation of Benin, guitarist Lionel Loueke has enjoyed a meteoric rise over the past several years. In 2008 and 2009, he was picked as top Rising Star guitarist in Down Beat magazine’s annual Critics Poll. His sophomore release for Blue Note, Mwaliko, follows up 2007’s acclaimed Karibu with a series of searching, innovative, intimate duets with Angelique Kidjo, Esperanza Spalding, Richard Bona and Marcus Gilmore. Loueke also includes three new tracks featuring his longtime trio with Massimo Biolcati on bass and Ferenc Nemeth on drums.
Praised by his mentor Herbie Hancock as “a musical painter,” Loueke combines harmonic sophistication, soaring melody, a deep knowledge of African music, and conventional and extended guitar techniques to create a warm and evocative sound of his own. JazzTimes wrote “Loueke’s lines are smartly formed and deftly executed. His ear-friendly melodicism draws both from traditional African sources and a lifetime of closely studying the likes of Jim Hall and George Benson, and his rhythmic shifts come quickly and packed with surprises.”
After his initial to exposure to jazz in Benin, Loueke left to attend the National Institute of Art in nearby Ivory Coast. In 1994 he left Africa to pursue jazz studies at the American School of Modern Music in Paris, then came to the U.S. on a scholarship to Berklee College of Music. It was at Berklee that he first met Biolcati and Nemeth. Through jam sessions, the trio developed an immediate rapport, in part fueled by internationalism. Biolcati is of Italian decent, but grew up in Sweden, while Nemeth was born and raised in Hungary. Both had extensively studied African music and were drawn to Loueke who was just beginning to fuse a Jazz technique with his African roots.
After graduating from Berklee, Loueke was accepted to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Los Angeles—along with Biolcati and Nemeth—where he had the opportunity to study his greatest mentors: Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Terence Blanchard. “I flipped,” says Hancock, recalling the moment he first heard Loueke’s audition tape. “I’d never heard any guitar player play anything close to what I was hearing from him. There was no territory that was forbidden, and he was fearless!”
Soon after his time at the Monk Institute, Loueke began focusing exclusively on nylon-string acoustic guitar, an instrument on which he’s developed a signature voice. “I feel more connected to the warmth of the nylon-string sound, even if the sound is not completely acoustic,” he says. Indeed, as Loueke’s sound grows more uniquely involved, not purely acoustic it still retains those qualities of immediacy, tenderness and passion that have made Loueke an influential force on the world stage, in jazz and beyond.