Gretchen Parlato & Lionel Loueke as a Duo Extraordinaire

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Vocalist Gretchen Parlato and guitarist Lionel Loueke made their recording as a duo “Lean In” (Edition Records) in 2021, but like almost any other recording of that time, they were unable to tour or perform in public and its release was postponed; due to this, it could have almost gone by unnoticed with its eventual release in 2023, till it recently won a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album (2024).

“Lean In” has already won “Best of Jazz 2023” in Jazz News Paris, and prior to this, the Bossa nova (Getz/Gilberto duo) influenced Parlato has also previously won numerous awards and Grammy nominations from Vocal Album of the Year International for the German Jazz Awards for her recording “Flor” (2022), and for the same album a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album in 2022.

These are significant achievements for Parlato (born in Los Angeles, 1976), whose father Dave Parlato was a musician playing with Frank Zappa on albums like “Zoot Allures,” just for note. Meanwhile, Parlato’s musical partner, Lionel Loueke (born in Benin, West Africa, 1973) was brought up by “poor intellectuals” in Benin and he started playing guitar as a late teen, influenced by George Benson, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Joe Pass, or simply put by the masters of jazz guitar. He has more nominations and awards under his belt, than Parlato, as an accomplished Blue Note artist since 2008.

After studying at the National Institute of Art in the Ivory Coast, the American Music School in Paris, and Berklee College of Music in Boston, Loueke studied from 2001 to 2003 at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Los Angeles (at UCLA), recently changed to the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz.

So their paths first crossed in Los Angeles, though both Parlato and Loueke are now based in New York City, and their collaboration is noteworthy for breaking from expectations, i.e. by seeking new forms in vocalized jazz best propelled by Loueke’s West African approach to jazz guitar with “griot” co-vocals.

Loueke is a mesmerizing soloist in top form and best proven on his 2020 release “HH” (on Edition Records) as a tribute to Herbie Hancock. On this he combines delicate and harmonious fretwork using effects pedals and a looper with pitched shifter and delay, combined with his mesmerizing voice (as an authentic Beninese griot). As vocalist, he swerves between Bobby McFerrin-style scat-singing and vocal percussion to letting his guitar sing on its own, while matching or merging this fresh and unusual approach (for jazz) with the nuanced, yet still more straight-ahead or down-to-earth vocals of Gretchen Parlato; all with a New York City spin, as there may be lesser known New York influences to decipher.

On a few tracks, there is a much heavier Afro-funky side with bass guitarist Burniss Earl Travis II, percussionist Mark Guiliana, and Marly Guiliana on back-up vocals. These songs verge on the French electronic music productions of African dance music, popular in Paris nightclubs a few decades ago.

One of the most captivating tracks is midway through the album; “Okagbe Interlude” is a ghostly and far too short solo effort by Loueke that is closest to traditional African music (stringed-acoustics and rhythms-percussion), but his vocals (altered in effects) seem to channel the enigmatic and musically prophetic experimental NYC cellist, vocalist, producer, composer Arthur Russell (1951 – 1992), who took influences from traditional African music, for a modern sound. So at its most intriguing points, both phantoms of West Africa and New York City are potently conjured up on this poetic collaboration.

Gretchen Parlato & Lionel Loueke perform as a duo for a European tour in April; see dates below.

Wednesday, April 10—Bimhuis, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Thursday, April 11—Stadtgarten Europaisches Zentrum fur Jazz, Cologne, Germany
Friday-Saturday, April 12 & 13—AC Recoletos Jazz, Madrid, Spain
Sunday, April 14—Jazzclub Unterfahrt, Munich, Germany
Tuesday, April 16—New Morning, Paris, France
Wednesday, April 17—Konzerthaus Wien, Vienna, Austria
Thursday, April 18—Cabaret des Peches, Brno, Czech Republic
Friday, April 19—Jazz Dock, Prague, Czech Republic
Saturday, April 20—Nasjonal Jazzscene, Oslo, Norway
Tuesday, April 23—Jumeaux Jazz Club, Lausanne, Switzerland
Thursday, April 25—Ha Concerts, Gent, Belgium
Friday, April 26—Bravo Caffe, Bologna, Italy
Saturday, April 27—Jazz Club Ferrara, Ferrara, Italy
Sunday, April 28—Volkhaus Basel, Switzerland

Tony Ozuna is Art Director and senior lecturer for the School of Journalism, Media & Visual Arts at Anglo-American University in Prague.

Last modified: April 9, 2024