Karibu is West African guitarist and vocalist Lionel Loueke's debut album for the Blue Note label, and his fourth overall. Loueke is best known to America's audiences as a sideman in Herbie Hancock's quartet, and for his stellar 2006 offering Virgin Forest on the wonderful ObliqSound imprint. Fans of Richard Bona's breezy blend of high string bass and wordless vocalizing will have a frame of reference at least in feel for Loueke's music, though the men are very different. On Karibu (Swahili for "welcome"), Loueke is joined by his longtime bandmates Ferenc Nemeth (drums/percussion) and Massimo Biolcati (bass), and by his former and future boss Hancock, and another musical mentor, Wayne Shorter, on a pair of cuts each, with one of them in common. Loueke's guitar playing comes off as sounding completely acoustic sometimes, as on the reading of John Coltrane's "Naima," like a griot's kora. The simple truth, however, is that he puts his instrument through a load of effects to get this sound. Loueke's wordless vocals and tongue-clicking are as much a part of his sound as his guitar playing and compositions. They add to the music a percussive effect and are often in counterpart to the rhythmic intent of Nemeth. The problem is, that the slick, under warm water production by Eli Wolf to make this music so accessible to American audiences can make some of these tunes feel as if they go by in a blur, and that have fewer dynamics than they do.
The best moments here are where the band is expanded beyond the trio. On "Seven Teens," Hancock adds knotty, forceful, and percussive left-hand runs and accents the counterpoint in Loueke's melody. On "Naima," it's the hand drums and spatial effects -- and Loueke's mouth effects -- on the pronounced yet utterly subtle intro with the beautiful and haunting strings under the guitar's bridge that offer a few moments of dislocation to the tune. When Biolcati's bass announces the line and Shorter's soprano comes in on the actual line, Loueke is a able to use that "kora-like" sound to make the melody something wholly other without it being lost in the modal interplay between the two frontmen. Shorter, as one might expect, is in excellent form here. This is an excellent version of the song. Hancock and Shorter play together on the album's highlight, "Light and Dark." It too begins quietly, pensively even, but as the other players join Loueke it becomes an ambitious interchange between the contrasts mentioned in the title, and a full-on engagement of a band both articulating a complex melody as well as exploring the even more strident and ambitious harmonics that become possible during improvisation. Given its ten-minute length, it takes some time moving into gear, but when it does it begins to lope and run. This is followed by a funkier, more groove-conscious number, "Agbannon Blues," where Nemeth gets a chance to lay in his breakbeat chops, and the bass and drum strut offer Loueke the opportunity to use everyone from Wes Montgomery to Pat Metheny as signposts in both composition and solo.
Make no mistake: Karibu has its flaws, but after hearing Loueke's previous works, they don't seem to lie with him. The sound of this record is more the issue. Blue Note has a habit in the 21st century of rounding off as many edges as possible with artists they are trying to break, and this Wolf production is no exception. The music is gorgeous, the feel of most of these tunes, with their breezy ethereal airs, will delight most and be among the most refreshing things they hear in 2008. That said, this is not as strong an effort as Virgin Forest, and there is no use pretending it is. Check this out to be sure, because Loueke's an original voice on the guitar, not to mention as a composer; but then dial up a site that has Virgin Forest and compare the two. Karibu is easily the safer of the two.