As an artist, a tribute album is always a fraught endeavour. Are the re-workings of the originals too similar? Is there enough new to be said? Did the person even want to be lionised in this way? One doesn’t imagine these being questions that Lionel Loueke will have to contend with. Loueke is a masterful guitarist who has toured the world playing with legend Herbie Hancock in recent years, appearing on several albums including 2007’s River: The Joni Letters.
Hancock was always gracious in giving Loueke his space to express his wondrous ability to audiences and Loueke’s new album feels like him returning the favour, in his own small way. HH (the initials of his mentor, of course) is a collection of Loueke’s versions of classics from the Hancock songbook, including “Watermelon Man” and “Cantaloupe Island”; it feels doubly appropriate given that Hancock reached the landmark age of 80 this year.
Throughout his incredible career, Hancock has worked in a variety of offshoot genres, including post-bop, jazz-funk, and soul, but Loueke gathers it all together and packages it neatly into a collection of intricate guitar tracks. Essentially, he strips it all down to the bare necessities: mostly we are treated to just Loueke’s soulful whispers and his twanging guitar. This is what makes it a true tribute album, not simple homage. He knows he cannot compete with the voluminous stylings of the originals and he also knows his own strengths.
“Hang Up Your Hang Ups” sets the tone right away. Loueke’s plucking prowess is outstanding, unraveling at a speed that is hard to keep up with. At first, “Driftin’” travels in similar territory, but he adds soulful vocalising flashes, infusing it with a hint of his West African roots (Loueke was born in Benin before his journey took him through the Ivory Coast and Paris on his way to the United States). “Tell Me A Bedtime Story” is then a slower and more haunting piece. Several parts of the record sound almost Brazilian, touched as they are with a bossa nova smoothness (“Come Running To Me” especially).
This is what one notices overall: the overarching speed of Hancock’s songs are turned down. So the funk of a track like “Actual Proof” is slowed, becoming a twitching woodsy folk piece. “Cantaloupe Island”, as mentioned, is one of Hancock’s signature works, so it was always going to be a mighty task to take on. Loueke implants an acoustic swagger and strut to the swaying funk of the original and his pacing is successful. The strange and groovy percussion of “Watermelon Man” is likewise replaced by a striving and stuttering rhythm that relaxes into its slowness. He most clearly decreases proceedings on “Rockit”, completely emptying Hancock’s splashy electronic original of its bravado, playing the instrumentation barely above a murmur.
Loueke also included two of his own compositions on HH: “Voyage Maiden” and, aptly, “Homage to HH” which still fit with the rest of the record, lightly following the same path. To close HH, the chaotic rhythm of Hancock’s “One Finger Snap” remains compelling but in an understated way, becoming in Loueke’s fingers a strangely alluring modern twist on post-bop.
There is very little – noticeable at least – studio interference on HH. It really feels like the exact visions Loueke had in mind when he undertook this gargantuan tribute task. He showed no fear reimagining some of Hancock’s best-known compositions, never settling for lesser pieces. Yet the highest compliment that could be paid to Loueke is that this solo record feels like just that: it’s able to stand alone as a Loueke record and that, truly, is the mark of quality homage.