Jazzmatters: The best new jazz of April and May 2023

By 31 May 2023

Has there ever been a more natural musical pairing than Lionel Loueke and Gretchen Parlato? Loueke is a guitarist and singer from Benin who has been playing jazz in the United States and around the world for more than two decades — and there are times when he can sound out of place in a standard jazz group. Parlato is an idiosyncratic singer with a delicate sound and a million brilliant moves, but whose version of “Body and Soul” was probably never going to be her centerpiece. They have recorded together before, but Lean In is their most complete and winning collaboration. It works so well because it draws rhythms and inspiration from around the world, with both artists simultaneously subtle and busy.

Though initially inspired by George Benson and Wes Montgomery, Loueke’s guitar has always been a quieter, more acoustic-sounding vehicle, mimicking percussion at times and a perfect match to Parlato’s textured vocal approach, which is alternately fluid and percussive. On “Muse”, for example, Loueke plays a quiet, complicated finger-picked percussive pattern, which is complemented by additional percussion from drummer Mark Guiliana. Parlato floats atop the ripple of sound, leading to an acoustic solo from Loueke.

Layers of sounds shift in and out of the arrangement, including electric washes of guitar, concluding with wordless singing. Loueke sings too, sometimes an octave below Parlato (“Nonvignon”), sometimes in scatted ensemble with Parlato (“Akwê”), sometimes in percussive clicks and pops. Highlights include “I Miss You”, which could be a successful pop song but is elevated by the more artful and minimal approach here, and “Walking After You”, the album closer.