Review by J Hunter
If you need a reason to check Nippertown’s event calendar “Today’s Tips” every day, here’s one: No matter how well you think you’ve done your homework, you never know what you might have missed. For instance, I didn’t know guitarist Lionel Loueke was playing a show at Williams College last Friday until the morning of the show, when I happened to check that day’s breakdown of entertainment options. I’d seen Loueke twice as a sideman with Terence Blanchard (the last at The Egg’s Swyer Theatre, less than two weeks after Katrina flattened Blanchard’s hometown), but quite a lot has happened since then. Between Loueke’s own recordings and his appearances with everyone from Herbie Hancock to Gonzalo Rubalcaba, the lanky native of Benin has carved a pretty good career path of his own.
Loueke’s five-tune, 75-minutes-plus set came entirely from his third Blue Note release Heritage, and in venerable Chapin Hall, the music sounded heavenly. Chapin was the first home of the late, lamented Williamstown Jazz Festival, and is also where Williams College’s Artist in Residence & Director of Jazz Activities Andrew Jaffe has been holding court for nearly 25 years. As it turned out, the Williams Jazz Ensemble show that preceded Loueke’s set would be Jaffe’s last: Department Chair Tony Sheppard came onstage at the end of the ensemble’s performance to announce that Andy was stepping down after this semester, although he would still be teaching (and breaking in his successor) for the next few years. Then, in stages, Sheppard asked past students, patrons of Williamstown Jazz, and other friends of the program to stand up and be counted. By the time he was done, nobody was sitting down, and we all gave Jaffe the ovation he so richly deserved.
Certainly the ensemble’s hour-long show proved Jaffe’s still doing the same stellar job he’s always done. While there were a few small stumbles at the start, the 24-headed machine slowly built up steam until they were hitting pro-level pieces over the fence. Source material ranged from the expected (Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin’,” Count Basie’s “A Warm Breeze”) to the wildly unexpected (Radiohead’s “Bodysnatchers,” Souls of Mischief’s “93 Til Infinity”), and students arranged almost half of the nine-song set. Before Loueke joined the big band for Jaffe’s killer arrangement of the guitarist’s own “Benny’s Tune,” the ensemble’s high point came when they expertly tackled the Greg Hopkins arrangement of “Body & Soul” that John Coltrane recorded in 1960. Reed player Andy Quinn’s soprano sax work really made the piece dance, and the senior’s individual performance was only superseded by the monstrous stylings of trumpeter Jonathan Dely. The Jazz Ensemble TA may only be a sophomore, but Dely’s got poise beyond his years, and his solos on “Moanin’” and Clifford Brown’s “Portrait of Jenny” (a piece Dely arranged) make me very optimistic about this genre’s future.
Loueke is a big part of jazz’s present, and anybody who didn’t know that got a quick education during the opener “Ouidah.” As bassist Michael Olatuja set the floor and drummer John Davis used soft mallets to bring distant tympani, Loueke vocalized in Yoruba. When he took his vocals up an octave, it was breathy, but it was real, and the words echoed round the wood-and-stone space, bewitching us all as Loueke got deeper and deeper into the piece. Loueke’s guitar sounds like a cross between Bill Frisell and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, but Loueke’s percussive playing style keeps his lines both neatly clipped and irresistibly effervescent. If Chapin had a dance floor, it would have been filled during the following piece “Ife.”
Although Davis and Olatuja both gave their leader outstanding support, there were moments when Loueke seemed like a one-man band: Growing up in Benin, Loueke was a drummer before he became a guitarist, so his application of that past to his present axe makes sense. On the Western side, though, he also slaps that mother like Stanley Clarke on a hot night, and his effects box conjures up just enough keyboard sounds to make the funky “Farafina” jump a little higher. The box’s harmonizer turned Loueke into a choir on “Ife,” and he used a high, slow guitar loop to set the tone for the pleading, powerful “Hope.”
This was the equivalent of Senior Night for many Jazz Ensemble members, and the Loueke Trio’s scalding performance gave anyone contemplating going pro a long, detailed look at what awaits them in the real world. That said, Loueke was still a student at Berklee when he first started playing with Blanchard, so anything can happen when talent matches up with timing. Either way, the night was worth the beautiful drive to Williamstown – a drive I wouldn’t have made if I hadn’t checked “Today’s Tips.” Like I said: Once a day, every day, is all we ask. It does a body (and soul) real good.