Gaïa is guitarist Lionel Loueke’s fourth album. Loueke’s albums continue to be remarkable—he is well known for combining African music with deep knowledge of harmony in jazz composition.
Loueke was born in Benin, where he first learned to play music with traditional Beninese instruments. He then studied jazz at the American School of Modern Music in Paris, at the Berklee School of Music, and at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.
Eleven of the twelve songs on the album are original compositions. All twelve are phenomenal performances of refined musicianship.
Gaïa is named after Gaia, the mother of the Earth in Greek mythology. According to Loueke, Gaïa is angry because humans have destroyed nature as we first found it in order to erect industrialized civilizations. Climate change is at the very top of contemporary social concerns, but it is, however, very hard to pick up on the album’s environmentalism through the music. The songs never feel like those of an environmentalist. On the contrary, Loueke’s electric guitar playing, for example on the song “Procession,” feels intensely urban.
The album in its entirety sounds like intense city living. Loueke made a choice to identify environmentalism with the electric guitar. We do hear what sounds like traditional African melodies but it would be unwise to assume that they are environmentalist melodies. Loueke’s listeners who do not read the album’s liner notes will more than likely not pick up on the album’s message.
Gaïa was recorded live at Sear Sound. It was produced by Blue Note Records president Don Was. Loueke recorded with the members of his very first trio, Gilfema: drummer Ferenc Nemeth and bassist Massimo Biolcati. Loueke formed the trio after several years as a sideman with Herbie Hancock, Charlie Haden, and Terrence Blanchard. Gilfema released a self-titled debut in 2005.
Gaïa’s core is Loueke’s guitar playing. His solos are sometimes better than the songs in their entireties. I found myself focusing on Loueke’s guitar playing while listening to “Sources of Love.” However, many of the songs are standout compositions, including “Rain Wash” and “Forgiveness.” The title song features great solo playing and is well-composed. The songs that are standout compositions are very spiritual; they feel like listening to the dawn of a humane and multicultural civilization. Life in both West Africa and the United States is often very unspiritual, and there is something both surreal and soothing about Gaïa’s better music.
If not for Loueke’s virtuosity, drummer Nemeth might have stolen the show on several songs. That is the case on “Sleepless Night,” which feels like a fascinating battle between two very confident musicians, Nemeth and Loueke. In “Even Teens,” Biolcati’s bass playing is thrillingly aggressive and the trio lets him go on an unbelievable solo. Loueke’s singular guitar atop of everyone else’s great playing makes for songs that are melodic enough to be hummed along to while being complex.
Gaïa feels like it should be danced to. The song “Wacko Loco” is quite simply a dance song. Most of Loueke’s guitar playing moves one’s body as rock and roll does.
Does Loueke mean for us to dance to his songs? Jazz dance is not in style as it once was. Most West African religious ceremonies are traditionally danced—the Yanvalou is one of the great Beninese Vodou dances—and so were Ancient Greece’s religious rites. Does Loueke want us to dance in prayer to Gaia? It would be great if we were shown how to dance to Gaïa.
The trio’s performance of the Bee Gee’s song “How Deep is Your Love?” is the most conventional track on the album. The song is a very simple composition. However, it gives pleasure to the listener while featuring excellent musicianship. It is as worthy of esteem as the performance of a more nuanced composition like “Forgiveness.”
Such a spiritual album suffers from not belonging to a larger cultural manifestation or movement, but it still has the power to seriously move a listener. The guitar can be heard as a political instrument and has played an important role in progressive social movements. Loueke himself is one of the great guitarists of our day. One almost wishes that Gaïa was the sound of some sort of new environmentalist existentialism, or the fight for a new ethos—then the album would have an even deeper meaning than the ability to move the listener’s feet.