Monday, October 10, 2016

Aziza Plays Jazz for the Spirits at the Wisconsin Union Theater

Aziza press photo (Harland, Holland, Potter, Loueke)
by Susan Kepecs
Aziza, a superstar jazz quartet with a chameleon-like approach that takes its main shadings from Big Apple bop and Africa-hued fusions, comes to the Wisconsin Union Theater on Saturday night, Oct. 22.  Aziza’s members’ musical pedigrees tie them tightly to the heights of black American music.  Veteran bassist Dave Holland played on Miles Davis’ indelible, Grammy-winning fusion recordings, In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969 and 1970, respectively).  Saxman and former Holland protegé Chris Potter got his start at the end of the ‘80s with the late bebop jazz trumpeter Red Rodney, who played with Charlie Parker in the post WWII years.  Drummer Eric Harland often plays with the original jazz fusionist, Charles Lloyd, whose album Forest Flower (1967, Atlantic) changed the world.  And Benin-born guitarist Lionel Loueke, alum of the Thelonious Monk Institute, counts Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Terence Blanchard as his main mentors.
Aziza’s first album is titled eponymously, and its release date (on Holland’s Dare2 Records label) is amost week away as I write this, so there’s not a lot to listen to yet.  You can stream the title track, a Loueke tune called "Aziza Dance," thanks to the New York Times:

And I found a video of them in Vitoria-Gasteiz, capital of the atonomous Basque region of northeast Spain, which I’m pirating off the internet – so many thanks to an unknown videographer, and my apologies for the ads that’re undoubtedly gonna pop up.  


This is a group without a designated frontman, but azizas are Beninese forest sprites.  And in the spring of 2008, Loueke played the Union Theater stage with chanteuse Gretchen Parlato.  I’ve been taken with his intricately textured, pan-Africa-jazz / rock fusions ever since.  

So I picked Loueke to interview in advance of this concert.  I reached him by phone in Germany a couple of Saturday mornings ago. 

CulturalOyster: Tell me about being a kid in Benin – and how you came to choose a career in music.   When you were starting out there was a lot of exciting music happening in Africa, especially in Nigeria.  How much did that influence you? 

Loueke:  Being a kid in Benin I was pretty much surrounded by music.  Most of the kids there grow up with traditional ritual ceremonials.  Every week or so somebody passes away or gets married or there’s an aniversary, always with music.  So I grew up listening, and playing traditional music with musicians older than myself, and then I was going to different villages for ceremonies for the same reasons, so I really grew up with the music of Benin.  My older brother was a guitar player, that’s how I started – he showed me my first chords and then I taught myself, and I learned from my peers. 
       And I was influenced a lot by Nigerian musicians.  Nigeria being the biggest country in Africa in terms of population, and being right other side of the border from Benin, the two countries share a lot of culture – and the language is Yoruba in Benin as well as in Nigeria.  So I was definitely influenced by the great musicians like King Sunny Adé and Fela [Kuti].

CulturalOyster: You play guitar on Angelique Kidjo’s rootsy Oyo album.  I think she’s a bit older than you, so was she also an influence when you were young? 

Loueke: No, she wasn’t really an influence. she was older than me but not by much.  She grew up with my brother, she was his peer.  I remember seeing her and my brother playing recitals, and her mother and my mother are from the same village, so we knew each other a long time ago.

CulturalOyster: There’s some Soweto in your sound, too – the clicks, and sometimes the melodies. 

Loueke:  Yes, definitely.  I was listening a lot to [Miriam] Makeba.  I don’t speak Xhosa, unfortunately, but I get inspired by the click so I use it a lot.  For me it’s for rhythmic purposes, I don’t use it as language.

CulturalOyster: What was it that brought you to American jazz?

Loueke: When I started playing Afropop I heard jazz for the first time.  I was touched, without understanding.  I wanted to understand it and when I discovered it was based on improvisation it changed everything for me.  I was listening mostly to guitar players – Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, George Benson.  There’s definitely improvisation in African traditional music, but mostly from the lead percussionist or the lead singer.  The others in the band have specific parts.  I remember when I started playing professionally – I was in an Afropop group – and we had three guitar players, plus bass.  I was on lead guitar but I was always playing my own way, so they moved me to second guitar – there you’re only playing low register, so there’s not that much freedom to improvise.  But that’s what I always wanted to do. 

CulturalOyster:  Terence Blanchard, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter have been so important in your career – tell me a bit about how they influenced you, and how their influences come out in your work today.

Loueke: I learned so much – I’m still learning from them.  I’m lucky to still be playing with Herbie today.  All three of them changed a lot for me, even beyond the music.  Musically I learn every time I play with them, but just being around them is the biggest lesson.  It’s a life lesson.  It makes a difference in who I am today.  How humble and giving they are – that’s something that even playing music doesn’t quite reach.  There’s a whole different spiritual level that I’m learning from them.  That’s more important for me than music, because music is just part of what we do, but it’s not who we are, as Herbie says.

CulturalOyster: That delicate balance between Africa and New York that you get – how do you describe it, rhythmically and melodically? 

Loueke: That's a hard question.  I think in general, in New York today there’s a huge globalization of the music – Vijay Ayer from India, Miguel Zenón from Puerto Rico, guys from Cuba – all kinds of different influences come into play, you hear it very strongly and it’s something that really comes out in our generation. But Dizzy was doing it with Chano Pozo in the ‘40s – it’s just more developed and more global now.  Everybody is in New York, and everybody keeps their culture with them, which is a good thing for jazz.  I think that’s why I live in New York – I’m learning not just jazz, but also this incredible global language.  If you want to be a good jazz player you’ve got to be where it’s happening.  It happens in Benin, and all over Africa, but I’m more into the collaboration you only find in New York.  That’s what the world needs, we need to learn from each other and live together.

CulturalOyster: How did the Chris Potter, Dave Holland, Eric Harland and Lionel Loueke collaboration come about?  Tell me more about the project.  

Loueke: I’ve been doing a lot of collaborations, especially for the last four or five years.  I’ve worked with a lot of different musicians. Dave Holland and I were talking about working together and he called me about this project and I told him to count me in.  It’s a beautiful collaboration with great musicians.  It’s all about compositions from all of us, everybody brings tunes and we play them and record them – there’s no specific direction we’re going in.  I think the music speaks for itself and it goes in any direction someone takes it because everybody’s listening so close.  That’s when the magic can really happen.

CulturalOyster: Is there anything I didn’t ask that you want to add?

Loueke:  I want to give a sense sense of what this collaboration is really about.  There’s no ego, it’s all about the music and the moment.  That moment only happens one time, it’s unique and impermanent.  Come share that moment with us, if you can.

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