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Lionel Loueke - Close Your Eyes (Sounderscore)

22 October 2021

One of the most original guitarists in modern jazz, Lionel Loueke has spent his career – both as a bandleader and a much-loved sideperson – fusing the African music he grew up with in Benin to American jazz. For Close Your Eyes (originally released on limited edition vinyl in 2018 by the boutique label Newvelle), however, Loueke plays it relatively straight, essaying a group of jazz and Great American Songbook standards. In that capacity the axeman is right at home, as comfortable with the post bop of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” and the bebop of Miles Davis’ “Solar” as with the balladry of Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” and melodic swing of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark.”

Loueke also has the confidence to take on a pair of jazz titans. He dips into the Thelonious Monk songbook twice, with particularly bluesy takes on “Blue Monk” (perhaps the piano genius’ best known tune) and “We See.” He also interfaces with the songbook of the mighty John Coltrane, connecting with the beauty of the dreamy “Naima” in a solo rendition, and locking into the challenging, odd-metered “Countdown,” the innovative saxophonist’s other standard-setter from Giant Steps. Interestingly, despite proving himself up to the task of interpreting the gods, Loueke shines brightest on the title track, a lively pop tune by lesser-known songwriter Bernice Petkere that gives off plenty of fireworks while remaining catchy as hell.

Joined by bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland, one of the greatest, grooviest rhythm sections in jazz, Loueke focuses less on finger-twisting licks and more on using his impressive technique to convey the melodies in the most efficient way possible. Combining that approach with songs deliberately chosen for their accessibility gives Close Your Eyes an instant appeal beyond jazz ears, without remotely compromising what jazz fans would expect.