Gaïa finds West African guitarist Lionel Loueke reunited with his longstanding trio of bassist Massimo Biolcati and drummer Ferenc Nemeth for the first time since 2010's Mwaliko. It was produced by Blue Note label boss Don Was and cut live in the studio -- sans overdubs -- in front of a small invited audience. The sonics are a tad more brittle, but they add to the crackling energy on offer. First single "Aziza Dance" is funky as hell; the guitarist vamps up a storm and Nemeth drops a ton of breaks amid snare-driven syncopation. Biolcati follows the knotty melody while dropping tough grooves into his fills. "Broken" is one of several tracks where Loueke employs an array of digital effects -- here he simultaneously evokes a blues harmonica and an analog synth. The almost fusion-like track is full of quick stops and starts, unusual cadences, and dissonant angles with dazzling fretwork by the guitarist. In "Veuve Malienne," those effects take on a different hue. In a breezy, late-night funk number, Loueke's guitar sounds like a melodica. When paired with the deep, woody tone of Biolcati's melodic bassline, the sound is elegant, silky. But Nemeth offers a chunky, taut swing in the pocket to maintain an edge. Loueke shows his affinity for rock here too, in the hard-vamping, crescendo-laden choruses on "Sleepless Night," the aggressive riffing in "Wacko Loco," and the spiky blues jamming in "Procession." In the title track, the guitarist shines with finger-popping arpeggios and gritty chord voicings. Nemeth's skittering snare and hi-hat breaks ride atop a taut, bumping bassline to create funky jazz at its best. The intro to "Eventeens" showcases Loueke's athleticism on the strings. He employs his pedals and switches, but it's his finger-slapping technique that impresses most. The set closer is an unlikely -- yet lovely -- cover of the Bee Gees' "How Deep Is Your Love." Played through the prism of Beninese pop and the harmonic invention of jazz, it's far from a lightweight finish, even if it is a graceful one. These trio members need no collaborators, extra production, or overdubs; they can -- and do -- deliver almost endless variations on all the stylistic genres they choose. The kinetic energy and obvious delight expressed by these players in such intimate and idea-rich conversation make Gaïa Loueke's most satisfying release to date.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek