Guitar Master Lionel Loueke’s Trio Album of Standards, ‘Close Your Eyes’ Remains Inspired (ALBUM REVIEW)

We expect original, inventive, mostly improvised music from one of the world’s more unique and acknowledged guitar masters, Lionel Loueke, but Close Your Eyes finds him treading traditional jazz standards and classics, albeit in his singular style. The album was first issued on the vinyl-only Newvelle label in 2018 but is now available in digital and CD formats through Gilfema bandmate Massimo Biolcati’s Sounderscore label. Joined by the rhythm duo of acoustic bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland, the longtime tandem for Charles Lloyd, Aaron Goldberg, and others. This release includes three songs that did not appear on the original – John Coltrane’s “Countdown,” Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark,” and Thelonious Monk’s “We See.”

Some will expect Loueke to play a nylon string guitar as he did with his trio Gilfema, as he did on his 2007 Blue Note release, Karibu, or his 2020 solo salute to Herbie Hancock, HH but as in the case in so many of Loueke’s sideman gigs with the likes of Dave Holland, Chick Corea, and Herbie Hancock; he takes to the electric guitar here. The album was recorded on a one-day break between tours with Hancock and Corea. Even in a recent duo live appearance at the Exit Zero Jazz Festival (covered herein), Loueke accompanied the acoustic guitarist Raul Midon on electric guitar. Coincidentally, it was Hancock who first introduced Loueke to Midon. Exit Zero marked their first appearance together.

Lest we digress, Loueke is famous for his African-inspired percussive guitar and Xhosa vocal clicks, which stems from South African Bushmen. He offers a different kind of rhythm and harmonics, a complexity that simply boils down to the reference, “Loueke’s lines.” He uses techniques call palm-muting to evoke the sounds of his native region and creates numerous staccato inflections along the way. Additionally, he marries these influences with more traditional guitar sounds, having intensively studied George Benson and Jim Hall. He brings all of that to bear here. You’ll recognize the melodies of these tunes but will encounter new articulations, harmonics, and meter choices.

The trio opens with Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” one that Loueke plays often when with Hancock punctuated with percolating rhythms from Harland and Rogers while the guitarist weaves in, out, and around. They address Coltrane twice, first with a rapid odd-meter take on “Countdown” and in the closer, a surprisingly animated solo treatment of “Naima.” There are also two turns for Monk, as the trio swings hard on both “Blue Monk” and “We See.” Of course, Miles gets a nod too, as they hit “Solar” hard too, Harland’s skittering kit work is as impressive as the leader’s fretwork.

They address the Songbook standards with a flair, retaining the structures while putting their own stamp on them. Rogers leads into the ballad “It Might As Well Be Spring,” as faithful a treatment as any here while Henry Mancini’s “Moon River,” with its beautifully sustained notes, has a slow-grooving guitar-drum duet as well. “Body and Soul” follows a similar course in terms of tempo except for Rogers adding his own emphasis to the engaging theme. Loueke rendered Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” in a nylon-string version on Karibu, so this electric version serves as a contrast and an historical note for Loueke catalogers. It also features an animated drum-bass dialogue where Loueke serves as the additional percussionist as he thumps and plucks his guitar. The extended title track, composed by Bernice Petkere, in a minor key that also highlights all three trio members, with Loueke soaring above the steady mid-tempo groove.

Standards, yes. Anything but standard playing though. Loueke is one of a kind. 

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