“He’s Always Looking For Something New”: Jazz Guitarist Lionel Loueke Talks About His Hero Herbie Hancock.
Guitarist and singer Lionel Loueke‘s musical journey has been nothing less than remarkable; so much so that it could almost be described as a heroic odyssey because it saw him battling seemingly insurmountable obstacles with a mixture of raw talent and determination to leave Benin, the West African country of his birth, and become an internationally recognised musician. Arguably the pinnacle of his achievements was when he played at the Whitehouse in 2016, where he was introduced to President Barack Obama. On that occasion, Loueke was performing alongside jazz keyboard magus, Herbie Hancock, who has figured prominently in the guitarist’s musical life during the past two decades as a mentor, musical colleague and friend. Loueke feels indebted to Hancock and now offers his gratitude in the form of a heartfelt tribute album called ‘HH,’ released on October 16th by Edition Records.
“Musically speaking, it’s been inspiring having the opportunity to play with Herbie for the last 16 years,” says the soft-spoken guitarist, who first went out on the road with Hancock in 2004 and has remained in the pianist’s touring band ever since. But Loueke says that Hancock’s influence on him transcends music. “He’s one-of-a-kind,” he states. “He’s just so very creative and open-minded, and always looking for something new. That’s what makes him very unique. And that’s why he was the inspiration behind this project.”
‘HH’ is a magnificent album that finds Loueke reimagining thirteen of Hancock’s most celebrated compositions; from funky classics such as ‘Watermelon Man’ and ‘Rockit’ to more meditative pieces like ‘Butterfly’ and ‘Tell Me A Bedtime Story.’ “This project is my version of Herbie’s tunes and taking them in a whole different direction,” explains Loueke, who says that recording the album wasn’t without its challenges. “He wrote so many beautiful tunes that it was sometimes hard for me because I had to find songs that I felt more connected to and could bring something different to.”
The album is particularly striking because of the way Loueke approaches Hancock’s tunes, offering stripped-down solo arrangements for guitar and voice. “I didn’t want to play with a band on this project,” explains Loueke, who alternates between acoustic and electric guitars. “I wanted to do it solo because it’s more intimate. Originally I played the songs in a live setting in the studio and then went back and chose the ones I liked and then tried to dress code them – doubling my voice or adding electric guitar, just to make some colours and create some atmosphere, depending on the tune.”
So, has Herbie Hancock (pictured above with Loueke) heard the album? “He was one of the first persons to hear it,” laughs Loueke. “He wrote me back and said he was honoured. He’s so humble. He loved it that I took his music in different directions – and that’s the whole point: It’s something different.”
Lionel Loueke’s association with Hancock goes back to 2001 when they first met in Los Angeles at an audition where the guitarist, who been a student at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, was hoping to secure a place at UCLA’s prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute. “Herbie was one of the judges with (saxophonist) Wayne Shorter and (trumpeter) Terence Blanchard,” recalls Loueke. “They were all in the same room. I was really nervous. How can’t you be in front of that kind of panel of judges?”
Despite his anxiety, Loueke, then 28, tried to keep his cool. “The one thing that I told myself was I had to be myself,” he reveals. “There’s no point trying to impress those guys; you just have to do your thing, and if they like it, that’s cool. If they don’t, well, that’s the way it is. So I went to do the audition in that kind of mindset.”
To his surprise, Herbie Hancock pulled him aside when he first walked into the audition room and asked him to play ‘Footprints,’ Wayne Shorter’s classic jazz composition that the Miles Davis Quintet played. To Loueke’s amazement, Hancock had remembered that the guitarist had included a version of the tune on a demo cassette he had submitted prior to the audition. “So I said yes,” relates Loueke, who had a request of his own. He asked Hancock: “Can I play an intro to it? He said yes, but I could see in the other guys’ faces that they were tired because I was one of the last persons to audition.”
Loueke played ‘Footprints’ but preceded it with a musical introduction of his own. “At the end of the tune, they all started clapping,” he remembers, “and Wayne Shorter (pictured right with Hancock) even stood up and said, ‘I told you guys I’m from Africa, this is my brother!’ That kind of calmed me down a little bit because I was so nervous.”
Despite the good humour that his audition stirred in the judges, Loueke was still required to sit a formal interview, talking to the panellists about himself and his musical aspirations. At the end of it, Herbie Hancock looked at the Monk Institute’s program director and said: “What about we forget the program and I just take this guy on the road?”
“It was surreal,” laughs Loueke, still bemused by what happened that day. “I remember thinking, is this really happening? But I told them, I’m here to study so I just want to make sure that I stayed there for two years and I did, although I played with Herbie after that.”
Hancock later shared his thoughts on first hearing Loueke play. “I flipped,” he said. “I’d never heard any guitar player play anything close to what I was hearing from him. It was as though there was no territory that was forbidden and he was fearless.”
By the time he joined officially Hancock’s band in 2004, Loueke had already been on the road many times with Terence Blanchard (pictured left), playing with him on weekend gigs. He says he learned a lot from the New Orleans trumpeter, who he also recorded four albums with. “For me, Terence is one of the best teachers I ever had. He knows how to help you to be yourself and take you outside the box, just like Herbie or Wayne. He likes pushing you and taking you out of your comfort zone, which is what all these guys do. There’s no comfort zone and that’s where the magic comes from; even if it doesn’t always work, at least just by trying, you discover something.”
The same year that Loueke joined Hancock, he recorded two albums for the New York label Obliqsound; one was a solo project, ‘Virgin Forest,’ which featured a cameo from Herbie Hancock, and the other was an album as part of a trio called Gilfema, with whom Loueke still plays with today. In the group with him are Swedish-Italian bassist Massimo Biolcati and Hungarian drummer, Ferenc Nemeth, who he both met at the Berklee School of Music in 2001. “They were at the same audition where I met Herbie, Wayne and Terence,” discloses Loueke. “They got accepted, too, for the two-year program so that was the moment that we really develop something as a band because we were playing every day for three years.”
Loueke says he has a special connection with Biolcati and Nemeth in Gilfema (pictured left) but despite playing for almost 20 years together and making three albums, they never get complacent with each other. “What I like about this trio is it’s challenging,” he states. “There’s no comfort zone. Many people might think, oh, yeah, you guys have been playing together for so long and I’m sure you know each other so well, but yes and no, because we keep throwing different things on the table – and I like that. But we do have our own language, which you can only develop if you play together.”
On the new album, ‘HH,’ Massimo Biolcati has a significant role as Loueke’s co-producer. “Massimo is one of the greatest producers I know,” says the guitarist. “I wanted to have somebody who knows me; who knows how I play, who knows what I can bring and who can tell me in the studio, I know you can do this better. And he did. He suggested that I record ‘Dolphin Dance’ and ‘One Finger Snap,’ which is one of my favourites on the album because it came out so organic and raw. So for me, that’s one of the reasons why it was good to have Massimo there.”
In 2008, Loueke’s impressive work both as a leader and sideman led Blue Note Records to sign him and on ‘Karibu,’ his debut album for the company, he asked Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter to join him – both together and separately – on three songs. “I didn’t know when I made the record that they hadn’t played as sidemen together on anybody else’s albums for about 30 years before that recording,” laughs Loueke. “I was like, wow! I wouldn’t have asked them if I knew that; it would have been too much pressure. But I appreciated the way they both stepped up and said yeah, let’s do it. I was really touched by that.”
On his third Blue Note album, 2012’s ‘Heritage,’ Loueke teamed up with one of the most formidable talents in contemporary American jazz; keyboardist Robert Glasper. “He’s another genius who has a vision and some great ideas,” enthuses the guitarist. “He’s an amazing musician and has got some amazing ideas. That’s what production is about: somebody who can bring something different to the table that you naturally wouldn’t even think of.”
Loueke also played with Glasper in the supergroup, The Blue Note All-Stars, a sextet that also featured trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, saxophonist Marcus Strickland, bassist Derrick Hodge, and drummer, Kendrick Scott. They’ve only made one album to date – 2017’s ‘Our Point Of View,’ a double set featuring cameos from Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter – and according to Loueke, there are no plans on the horizon to do another one. “That was a very unique project,” he says. “It’s so hard to put us together because everybody’s a leader and has different projects.”
It was a year before that project when Loueke was invited to perform at the Whitehouse as part of an International Jazz Day celebration. His parents are understandably proud of that particular moment in his career. “When you come to my parents’ house, they have a big picture framed in the living room of me and Barack Obama at the Whitehouse,” laughs Loueke. “I went there two times with Herbie and have two pictures with Obama. My dad is very proud of me.”
Loueke, alongside the multi-award-winning singer Angelique Kidjo, is one of the most famous musicians to come out of a small west African country which is sandwiched between Togo and Nigeria. Up until the COVID pandemic, he was travelling to Cotonou, his home town on the Atlantic coast, regularly, visiting his family as well as playing concerts and hosting guitar workshops.
Amazingly, Loueke never touched a guitar until he was 17. Before that he sang and played percussion but it was the guitar that cast a spell on him. There was one in the family, owned and played by his older brother. “I was a big fan of his playing,” says Loueke. “He had a band and I used to go and listen to them. He was very inspiring but it took a few years to get him to actually teach me something.”
Loueke remembers that his brother was very protective of his instrument. “I wasn’t supposed to touch it,” he says,” but one day he caught me trying to play it and I thought he was going to kill me.” To his surprise, his brother wasn’t angry and offered to show him a chord that only required two fingers. “He said, if you play this E minor chord by tomorrow, I’ll show you another one,” remembers Loueke, who held the chord down for several hours, just playing it over and over. But then the next day his fingers were so sore that he couldn’t play.
Though his brother got him started, for the most part, Lionel Loueke is a self-taught musician. It took him a year to save up the $50 he needed to buy his first guitar but when the strings got old and tired, he couldn’t replace them because there weren’t any music stores in Benin. He attempted to put new life into the strings by boiling them in vinegar and that worked for a time but when they broke, he had to resort to knotting the loose ends together, which could prove hazardous – he had to avoid the frets where the knots were or he could end up cutting his fingers. “I got bloody hands a few times because I forgot about the knots when I was playing in the dark,” he laughs.
He was mostly playing African pop music but had an epiphany when he heard the album ‘Weekend In LA’ by American jazz guitarist George Benson, which a friend of his brother had brought back from France. “I’d never heard anything like that in my life,” reveals Loueke. “I was completely blown away by that and I said to myself, you know what? I’ve got to find a way how to do this.”
He wasn’t allowed to touch his father’s record player but when the family went to church on a Sunday evening, Loueke would secretly play the Benson LP and tape passages of it on a cassette recorder. In order to learn what Benson was doing – he didn’t even realise that the American was improvising – he put in half-dead batteries in his tape machine to slow down the music so he could figure out and copy note-for-note what was being played. “It changed the pitch but I did it so I could catch the notes,” he explains. “I’d catch one phrase and maybe I’d work on the same phrase for the whole week. And when I start getting to speed, I’d plug the tape machine back into electricity to go back to the right tonality. So that’s how I was working back then, just transcribing by ear.”
To find out more about jazz, he went to a local library, where he could get familiar with a variety of LPs and cassette tapes. “I’d go to the French Cultural Centre, where they had music that I could listen to and that’s when I discovered that George Benson came from Wes Montgomery. So then I started checking Wes out. There was no one back then that could help me or direct me. Nobody knew about jazz.”
Loueke began earning money gigging in local hotels and then, in 1990, moved to the Ivory Coast where he studied classical music before relocating to Paris four years later, where he attended the American School of Music. It was there that he was awarded a scholarship to study in America at Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music which eventually led him to audition in front of Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter for a place at the Thelonious Monk Institute. The rest, as the old cliché goes, is history.
What patently isn’t clichéd is Loueke’s unclassifiable polyglot style, which draws on many different influences from across the globe. He can alternate between fiery shards of electric rock-style guitar (as his 2015 album ‘Gaia’ clearly illustrated) or pluck tender filigrees on a nylon-stringed acoustic guitar while retaining the percussive tonalities of his African musical heritage. He says that his travels, from Africa to Europe and then America, have impacted on his musical sensibility greatly. “There’s classical music, the European style, and jazz, the American way of playing, in my sound, but I guess the source and home for me is the African continent,” he says.
But it took him a while to accept the African roots of his sound. “I remember when I was at Berklee, all my peers and teachers were telling me I had my own way of playing certain things, but I didn’t really understand what they were telling me or why, because my point was that I wanted to play like them,” he says. “I wasn’t trying to create and have my own voice but at some point, I wondered why everybody was telling the same thing so I started to listen in to myself and then realised that, okay, this is what they’re talking about.”
Reflecting on his approach to music, Loueke says he’s not afraid to cross musical borders to explore new territory and his recent collaborators include the Australian band, The Vampires, Hungarian trio Bacsó Kristóf Triad, German jazz singer Céline Rudolph, US pianist, Kevin Hays and the estimable Chick Corea + Steve Gadd Band. “I gained confidence from the best examples – Herbie and Wayne – because that’s I learned from them that there are no boundaries,” he says. “You just have to go for it and find and make your way out and not worry about if it’s right or wrong. If it’s wrong, you’ll know, and tomorrow, you’ll try it again.”
Loueke is 47 now, and though there are, no doubt, plenty more chapters left to write in both his biography and discography, he has already experienced moments which he’ll treasure forever. “One is being a young musician from Africa being at the Whitehouse – that’s a big moment,” he discloses. “Another big moment for me was when I signed with Blue Note Records; knowing the whole history of it, I never thought I would be a part of the label; and having Herbie and Wayne in the studio was beyond a dream coming true. I’m always amazed by not only their talent but also how humble they are and how willing they are to share their experience with you.”
Surveying the horizon beyond ‘HH,’ Loueke says that planning ahead is now more difficult. “I had a few ideas (of album projects) before the pandemic arrived but now, it’s changed a lot of things so I’m not sure what I’ll be doing next,” he says. “But I’ll know it will be different. My thing is that I like to do different projects. I don’t like to have two CDs back to back that sound the same. I like it that way because I don’t want to be labelled as doing African music or jazz. I just like doing all kinds of music.”
Lionel Loueke’s new album ‘HH’ is released by Edition Records on October 16th 2020.