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"Our story is what we play," says Lionel Loueke on The Third Story

Lionel Loueke
Jean-Baptiste Millot

When Lionel Loueke was coming of age as a young guitar player in his home country of Benin in West Africa, there were no music stores of any kind. He would have had to travel to Nigeria, the next country over, just to get his hands on some new strings. So he made due with what he had, cleaning and soaking, reusing his strings and even going so far as to tie knots in them when they broke.

Loueke’s story is the stuff of legend. After finally getting his hands on a guitar as a teenager, he put together enough technique and understanding to get himself to the Ivory Coast to attend music school, and then managed to get to Paris for further musical study. Eventually he went to Berklee College of Music in Boston, and then to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance at UCLA in Los Angeles, now called the Herbie Hancock Institute, where he had the opportunity to study and work with luminaries like Hancock, Terence Blanchard and Wayne Shorter.

Soon he began to work with those same mentors, appearing on albums by Blanchard and Hancock. Since then, he has gone on to play with an incredible list of the most creative and influential players alive. Today he lives in Luxembourg, teaches at the Jazz Campus in Basel, Switzerland, and in non-COVID times, tours and records relentlessly.

A brief scan of his recent solo work tells the story: In 2019 he released an ambitious album aptly named The Journey — the title referring to his odyssey while also mirroring his musical development. He followed that up in 2020 with a much more intimate album called HH, featuring solo guitar performances, punctuated by vocals and vocal percussion, of Herbie Hancock compositions. And last year saw the widespread release of Close Your Eyes, originally issued only on vinyl several years ago; it’s a more loosely structured blowing record of classic repertoire, in musical conversation with bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland.

Loueke tells me that after trying as hard as possible to remove the African influences from his playing and sound more like his jazz heroes, he ultimately realized that they were all compatible, and began to reintroduce more of the sounds of his childhood into his approach. The result is a very personal, musical, and emotional sound. I think maybe that’s what makes him such an appealing collaborator. His voice is so identifiable and personal, but you can feel the road that he has traveled in his playing.

In fact, he ends up telling me exactly that. “Our story is what we play,” he says, “the story of somebody from the beginning to the time they play; that’s what we are presenting.”

We spoke recently about growing up in Benin; discovering the guitar, and eventually jazz, by way of a George Benson record; making his way out of Africa, through France, to America; finding his voice and his style; how he sees his contribution as a teacher; and much more.

Leo Sidran is a Latin Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist, producer, arranger, composer and creative coach. Since 2014 he has hosted an influential podcast called The Third Story, featuring interviews with musicians, producers, songwriters and creators of all kinds.