Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Loueke, Lionel (Gilles)

Guitarist Lionel Loueke combines rhythms and nuances from his native West Africa with percussive singing and extended fingerstyle techniques to create an identifiable style which is rooted in the jazz tradition of George Benson and Wes Montgomery, yet in in an open dialogue with the world.

                           Lionel Loueke by Jimmy Katz

Lionel Gilles Loueke was born in 1973 in Benin. Loueke’s father was a professor of mathematics and his mother was a high school teacher. Though neither of his parents were musicians, he studied percussion from age nine until seventeen, when he began to play the guitar.

Loueke’s older brother played guitar in a band that played Afro-pop in the style of King Sunny Ade and Fela Kuti. As a teenager, Loueke stumbled upon jazz when a friend of his brother, visiting from France, brought him a George Benson album. This sparked Loueke's desire to learn jazz music and the rich tradition of jazz guitar from Wes Montgomery to the present. One example of Benson's influence over Loueke is their shared penchant for scat singing as they solo.

In 1990, he moved to the neighboring country of Ivory Coast, where he enrolled at the Institute for the Arts to study classical composition, theory, and sight-reading. Unfortunately, Loueke was low on funds and he was unable to pay his rent while in the Ivory Coast and he was subsequently kicked out of school. In need of money, he went in search of a gig and found one, which lasted two years. In 1994, Loueke moved to Paris where he enrolled at the American School of Modern Music.

Loueke graduated from the ASMM in Paris, which is run by graduates of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, then won a scholarship to study at Berklee. While in Boston, Loueke met Italian bassist Massimo Biolcati and Hungarian drummer Ferenc Nemeth, the members of his trio.

Loueke stayed in Boston until 2001 when his teacher Hal Cook suggested he apply to the Thelonious Monk Institute in Los Angeles. After sending in his tape, Loueke was one of three finalists invited to audition for Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Terence Blanchard. Loueke won the competition and spent the next two years playing and soaking up experiences with Dave Holland, Kenny Barron, and Terence Blanchard.

Loueke joined Blanchard’s band in 2002 on a part-time basis because the constraints of the Monk program would only allow him to tour with the trumpeter on the weekends or on breaks. In 2003, Loueke finished his studies at the Monk Institute and began to perform full-time.

Loueke continued to tour and record with Blanchard, appearing on his 2003 Blue Note album Bounce, which also featured pianists Aaron Parks and Robert Glasper. Featured on the album was the song “Innocence." In 2005, he formed a group with Biolcati and Nemeth, which released the self-titled album GilFeMa on the ObliqSound label. The group's name is an acronym based on the three members' first names: Gilles, Ferenc and Massimo.

Loueke continued to perform as a sideman with Blanchard and appeared on his 2005 album Flow, which was produced by Herbie Hancock. The album combines electric and acoustic jazz elements with world music influences and featured Parks on piano, Derrick Hodge on bass, and guest appearances by Hancock and vocalist Gretchen Parlato.

Also in 2005, Loueke appeared Hancock’s album Possibilities, on which he arranged and recorded the track "Sister Moon" with Sting. He spent a considerable amount of time in 2005 and 2006 touring with Hancock.

In 2007, Herbie Hancock recorded his tribute to vocalist Joni Mitchell, River: The Joni Letters. The album captured a revealing and vulnerable sound much like the music of Mitchell. The album boasted the rhythm section of Loueke, Dave Holland, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, and a wide array of vocalists. Loueke shows his ability in playing subtle background textures on “Edith and the Kingpin.

This song shows how wonderfully the band interacted on the session and how efficiently they blended together behind Tina Turner’s vibrato-fueled vocal. Other songs of note from the album include “Amelia" and "The Tea Leaf Prophecy."

River won the 2008 Grammy Award for Album of the Year, and Loueke’s star was rising steadily with his appearance on this album. Also 2008, Loueke released his debut album for Blue Note Records, Karibu, whose title track features a funky bass line by Biolcati, which is then doubled by Loueke.

Loueke shows his laid back side on the Hoagy Carmichael standard “Skylark"and demonstrates his advanced knowledge of harmony and guitar technique, using open chords and altered voicings.

Select Discography

As Lionel Loueke

Incantation (self-released, 2001)

Virgin Forest (ObliqSound, 2005)

In A Trance(Tokuma Japan, 2007)

Karibu (Blue Note, 2008)

With Herbie Hancock

River: The Joni Letters (Verve, 2007)

With Terence Blanchard

Bounce (Blue Note, 2003)

Flow (Blue Note, 2005)

With Gilfema

Gilfema (ObliqSound, 2005)

Contributor: Jared Pauley