Take Five: Lionel Loueke, James Brandon Lewis, Steph Richards, Peter Bernstein, Sam Amidon

Oct 11, 2020

Tracks from five new albums that expand horizons, each in its own way.

Lionel Loueke, “Rockit”

If you know anything about the brilliant West African guitarist Lionel Loueke, you probably know that he’s been a close musical partner to Herbie Hancock. The association actually goes all the way back to Loueke’s audition for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance some 20 years ago. (He knocked Hancock out on the spot, and was enlisted to go on tour.) All of which informs Loueke’s new album, HH, which amounts to both a warmhearted tribute and an ingenious act of translation.

It’s a solo guitar album, highlighting Loueke’s distinctive brand of facility on the instrument, his way of emulating an entire rhythm section. And because so many of the tunes have become standards, you can easily understand the liberties taken. A perfect example: “Rockit,” which in its original was an early hip-hop touchstone. In his version, which has its premiere here, Loueke imbues the song with some bounce and a bit of breath, using loops to create the impression of multiple voices.

Lionel Loueke’s HH will be released on Edition Records on Friday; preorder here.

Steph Richards, “Underbelly”

Trumpet virtuoso Steph Richards expands her frame into the extramusical on Supersense — an album made in collaboration with multimedia artist Sean Raspet, who created a series of scents for the project. The album opens with “Underbelly,” whose title and air of rhythmic agitation inspired Cossa, an animator based in Mexico City, to create this video full of figures that morph and merge, evoking a loose narrative of paranoia in the surveillance state.

Richards, whose horn provides the first spluttering sound you hear, enlists several excellent partners on the album: pianist Jason Moran, bassist Stomu Takeishi and drummer Kenny Wollesen, all of them adept at exploring texture and color as well as line. Supersense releases on Northern Spy on Friday; preorder here.

Peter Bernstein Quartet, “Newark News”

A few months ago, guitarist Peter Bernstein ventured out of his home for a recording session in Manhattan — something that once would have felt like a familiar experience but had been made to feel rare and surreal. That feeling subsided once he started playing with a stellar quartet, consisting of pianist Sullivan Fortner, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Joe Farnsworth. What they made was What Comes Next, which the Smoke Sessions label will release on Friday.

The album includes some older Bernstein tunes and a couple he wrote in quarantine, including the self-explanatory “Empty Streets.” But WBGO is proud to premiere a piece Bernstein used to perform with its composer, Sonny Rollins, and recorded with his blessing. It’s a buoyant calypso bearing the title “Newark News.”

The Peter Bernstein Quartet will perform an album-release engagement on Friday and Saturday at Smoke, for the club’s new livestream series, Smoke Screens.

James Brandon Lewis Quartet, “Molecular”

Revelation is always on the agenda for James Brandon Lewis. A tenor saxophonist with an impassioned and deeply centered sound, he was last heard in a free-improvising context, on the Alan Braufman album The Fire Still Burns. (Perhaps you recall that we featured a track in Take Five.) Lewis is now about to release his own new album, featuring a band with a more contemporary contour; titled Molecular, it has Aruán Ortiz on piano, Brad Jones on bass and Chad Taylor on drums.


The title refers to an idea Lewis has formulated about the balance between composition and improvisation; he calls it Molecular Systematic Music. There’s a lot to absorb in his theorizing on the subject, but its manifestation in practice is easy to grasp. You can hear it in the title track of the new album, which begins in a pensive air and gradually yields to some smartly focused turbulence.

Sam Amidon, “Light Rain Blues”

You’d be well within your rights to call Sam Amidon a folksinger. He picks a banjo and plays a fiddle, and on his self-titled seventh album, which Nonesuch will release on Oct. 23, he sings pedigreed folk songs. In the video for his version of “Light Rain Blues,” which Taj Mahal first recorded in 1969, Amidon stands in a field or plashes through a river, often while cradling his banjo.

But Amidon is also an improvising musician with a deep understanding of jazz, as are his core band members, multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Chris Vatalaro. (Among the other musicians on the album are saxophonist Sam Gendel and Amidon’s wife, the singer-songwriter Beth Orton.) Listen carefully to “Light Rain Blues” and you’ll detect a dark whimsy that’s echoed in the video, along with a spirit of creative license churning just under the surface.

Sam Amidon will be released on Nonesuch on Oct. 23; preorder here.