Spilling out on to the street, and taking some 20 minutes or more to even ascend the stairs and get through the doors, the audience who filled the Vortex to capacity last night were there for Lionel Loueke, one of the biggest draws in jazz today from the new generation in a rare small club setting in the UK. Loueke began his three-week European tour, the first of two nights, the second tonight, at the Dalston club with his new trio.
There was a big turn-out of fellow musicians in the audience including such luminaries as 2012 MOBO-nominated guitarist Femi Temowo, Phil Robson of Partisans and The Immeasurable Code, and Indigo Kid’s Dan Messore. Downstairs in the bar, there was a circus-like atmosphere with violin enfant terrible Dylan Bates and friends including the extraordinarily bewiggged ‘Miss Roberts’ of Rude Mechanicals performing to the diners and drinkers. The place was heaving with, again, many musicians in the audience downstairs, including Dylan’s brother Django Bates, relaxing after a busy and highly successful year.
Lionel Loueke was playing with his new trio of the now New York-based but former UK jazz scene Nigerian bass guitarist Michael Olatuja, as steady as a rock on the fast mutating and ridiculously long metrical lines that flew effortlessly from Loueke’s guitar.
The third member of the band needs no introduction to fans of Phronesis as he appeared on the Camden Town-recorded live album Alive helping Jasper Høiby’s band scoop Jazzwise album of the year just two years ago. Mark Guiliana is about to tour with the marvelously monikered and exciting band Mehliana with (geddit?) the Bradster himself (Mr Mehldau in London on Wednesday) playing keyboards in duo along with a cupboard-full of electronics for good measure. Guiliana brings the excitement of a rhythm machine made flesh to the band, with great technical skill, metrical precision and abandon, and Loueke just lifted off. The new album Heritage not on sale on the night because of problems to do with shipping following super storm Sandy in New York, provided some choice cuts including ‘Ife’ (‘Love’), sung in Yoruba, and ‘Ouidah’ with its meditation on the slave trade a feature of the album, although the beginning of the set was dogged by some small sound problems. They didn’t last long and Loueke was just limbering up for some serious improvising, interesting pedal effects, and the style of a player whose presence has enhanced the bands of Terence Blanchard, at Ronnie Scott’s tonight incidentally, and the great Herbie Hancock due to play solo next week, in no small measure.
At the beginning of the second set ‘Tribal Dance’ written by the album’s producer Robert Glasper who wrote the memorably lilting melody while he was still a high school student, was a perfect start and the concert just built and built. Loueke has switched to steel strings rather than the nylon he used on earlier albums for this new phase of his career on Blue Note records, but his sound remains as unique as ever irrespective of the textural and technical changes. It has a humanity, warmth, jazz complexity, and above all spirit that you’ve got to hear. When his vocals and guitar combine there’s also a special dimension reminiscent of something Loueke’s great hero George Benson achieved in following his solo lines with his voice every step of the way. Maybe they’ll have to take the tables out if even more people come down tonight, as Loueke joked. A great gig: the band’s on fire.
Lionel Loueke trio last night, above. Photo: Will Harris