Loueke's history is heavily influential on his distinctive style. Born in Benin and moving eventually to Cote D'Ivoire, he initially played percussion before falling in love with the guitar. His early career focused on African pop styled music, but after hearing a George Benson album, he was instantly enamored by the world of jazz and very quickly dedicated his life to it. His path took him to the Berklee College of Music before continuing to the Thelonious Monk Institute at USC, where he impressed a panel that included Herbie Hancock and Terence Blanchard, both of whom eventually toured and recorded with Loueke in their bands.
He has returned to St. Louis after making an appearance with Hancock at the Touhill Performing Arts Center last spring, this time leading his own trio including Michael Olatuja on bass and John Davis on drums. Much of the evening's set took a freeform style and Davis was very at home with this method. He made use of a wide drum set that included two snares and two floor toms in addition to the essential elements, often working off quick variations in a steady roll of rhythm rather than dynamic upbeats and downbeats. While there were certainly other styles present throughout the set, Davis seemed particularly connected to these freeform segments and solos, wearing a number of snarled grins as he dispensed flurries of rimshots, muted snare pops and cymbal combinations.
Olatuja was the least assertive element of the trio, rarely stealing the spotlight with a solo but always a vital part of the mix. Coming from Nigeria, the bassist was very at home with the western African styles that Loueke incorporated during the many jam sessions in the set. A regular member of the trio, Olatuja accompanied the band leader throughout each change of style, mimicking and accentuating many of the riffs and patterns with a notable familiarity. As an additional treat, his wife Alicia Olatuja, a St. Louis native and accomplished vocalist, joined the trio for soulful tune that included segments of smoothly delivered scat as well as a soft touch on the melody. Her appearance left the trio and audience with beaming smiles firmly plastered across their faces.
Loueke stood at the left of the stage behind an abundant set-up of pedals and switches with his guitar strapped high on his chest. With his pedigree of formal studies, it goes without saying that he is an incredibly proficient, technical musician, but it is his additional touches that make him such a distinctive artist. Constantly tapping on and off various effects and sustains, Loueke would often change the sound beat to beat, harmonizing with himself and laying down ambient resonance to add depth to the many tones. His percussive roots also appeared as he would blend taps and brushes across various parts of his instrument with these effects to create a variety of atypical sounds to add emphasis to the rhythms.
His sound wasn't always heavily altered, but very rarely was entirely clean. Often with a touch of reverb and a gentle delay, his guitar sounded very flighty, delicately lingering as he drifted fluidly between segments of phrasing and quick, cascading licks. This tone served as a foundation for much of the set, keeping the overall intensity limited to a mellow groove throughout most, but the set ended with far more energy. Building from an African style, all three musicians delivered an uplifting finale that had some tables rocking back and forth in the audience. With nowhere left to go but down, the set ended at this high point, releasing a herd of happy patrons to enjoy the rest of their night.
All photos by Wil Wander.