With little advance fanfare tomorrow sees the release of the latest album for Blue Note by US-based Beninese jazz guitarist Lionel Loueke. Co-produced by labelmate Robert Glasper whose own record Black Radio this year has marked a turning point in his own already rocketing career and who returns to the UK for the iTunes festival next month, Heritage is Loueke’s third album for Blue Note a label that signed him after Loueke appeared on a couple of Terence Blanchard records. Loueke, who has also toured extensively with Herbie Hancock as recently as his Imagine Project tour, also contributed to the Blanchard band’s songbook, and ‘Benny’s Tune’ if you haven’t heard it, is to my mind one of the best jazz compositions across the board in the last decade. It’s like a standard in the making with a distinctively bittersweet poignancy.
Heritage has dispensed with Loueke’s longstanding trio of bassist Massimo Biolcati and drummer Ferenc Nemeth, so instead there’s electric bassist Derrick Hodge, who you’ll know from Robert Glasper’s band, and who is himself to release a debut as a leader for Blue Note. And there’s also Mark Guiliana, the drummer who made such an impact with UK jazz lovers on Alive by Phronesis and previously when he played with Avishai Cohen. Heritage has seven new Loueke tunes, a couple by Glasper, who also plays on many of the tracks, and another distinguishing feature of the album is background vocal glimpses of singer Gretchen Parlato on a few tracks.
There’s a real warmth to the album and it sounds undeniably Loueke from the first notes. It’s interesting that in the past he has talked about liking George Benson’s music when he started out and was thinking about playing jazz, and particularly the 1970s album Weekend in LA. Well, Heritage is a world away from the Benson sound but both players share an instant ability to communicate their musical ideas however complex. With Glasper’s involvement and a new band the message will get across that bit more directly with Heritage I think and maybe Loueke’s vocals will come to the fore more and more as his career develops. ‘Tribal Dance’, the third track, written by Glasper, has a beautiful warmth to it opening up for Loueke to expand on the bed of percussion and vocals behind him, but there’s a lot of strong material throughout and above all Heritage works as a play-through album, which is always better than just a series of tracks in isolation unless you just want the thrill of a pop hit. Glasper’s input gives Loueke’s approach a new creative energy and it’s interesting that Loueke was an original member of Glasper’s band the Experiment. How recent jazz history would have been different if he had stayed. Let’s hope Loueke plays the UK again soon so we can hear some of these songs live.