For jazz fundamentalists, a guitarist who sings inspires mistrust, as a certain George Benson will no doubt attest. However, the case of Beninois sensation Lionel Loueke is not entirely comparable. His voice is used as much for textural effects, clicks, exhalations and general tonal distortions, as it is to deliver lyrics, and at times meshes very closely with the distinctively pinched, puckered sound of his nylon string guitar.
As he showed on two strong previous releases, 2006's Virgin Forest and 2008's Karibu, Loueke exercises considerable ambition in his arrangements, sometimes altering harmony quite daringly, sometimes making the mood shift by the use of a pedal board to create the sizzle of a Hammond organ, as does Charlie Hunter on occasion. Loueke's main collaborators for this engrossing set are his partners from the group Gilfema: double bassist Massimo Biolcati and drummer Ferenc Nemeth. They are joined by very contrasting personalities from African music and jazz - vocalist Angelique Kidjo, double bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding, drummer Marcus Gilmore, and a man who, like Loueke, is a bridge between those two worlds, electric bassist/vocalist Richard Bona.
Loueke's melding of rhythmic complexity and sophisticated chords has produced music which is both in and outside the lineage of Afro jazz, primarily because he doesn't simply apply Western harmony to a non-Western rhythmic base but rather constructs songs with a languid, floating, at times ethereal quality that takes him very close to the sophisticated Afro samba of Milton Nascimento, or at least his collaborations with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, or Pat Metheny. There is a finesse and femininity in Loueke's work that is very Nascimento. He also has 'chops' insofar as his improvisations can ignite and burn in the manner of a classic hard swinger, but he regularly leavens them with inventive rhythmic lines.
Unlike many of his peers, Loueke is not afraid to play a pithy groove to break up a song's narrative instead of dazzling with an extend solo. This is a sign of both artistic maturity and an ability to think as a communicative musician rather than a grand virtuoso to be admired.