Lionel Loueke’s jump from acoustic guitar to electric on his latest Blue Note recording, Heritage, doesn’t seem like such a sea change when you consider the Benin native once resorted to replacing broken guitar strings with bicycle brake cable. Resourcefulness has been a trademark of Loueke’s career. It’s also a mark of his music. He’s mined the rhythms and harmonies of his African homeland as well as studying the improvisational techniques of some of the great American jazz guitar masters. Behind it all is a personal warmth and lyricism that makes his sound unique. That sound has been recognized by some of the greatest names in jazz — Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Jack DeJohnette, and Terence Blanchard among them — who have included the guitarist in their recordings and performances. It’s remarkable that someone so accomplished didn’t even know who these musicians were as he was learning his craft. “No, they were not my heroes,” Loueke told Pasatiempo. “I didn’t know that much about them until I went to study in Paris. Before then, I was listening mostly to guitarists like Tal Farlow, Barney Kessel, Joe Pass, and Wes Montgomery.”
Loueke’s long journey from his West African home to concert halls and jazz festivals worldwide — his trio opens for Terence Blanchard on Friday, July 26, as part of the New Mexico Jazz Festival — seems improbable until you hear him. He started out as a young man playing percussion and later bass, but he always felt drawn to make his own way through the music rather than repeat the grooves the local band required. After picking up the guitar at 17, he was exposed to the work of George Benson when a friend brought back a recording from France. Here was something new, a player who seemed to go his own way inside the music, as Loueke wanted to do. Not realizing what the craft of improvisation was, he began to transcribe the guitarist’s every note. Later, the recordings of other American jazz guitarists became an influence, granting a different view from that he’d acquired playing rhythmic Nigerian guitar music of the sort performed by King Sunny Adé and others.