Lionel Loueke

When done properly, jazz music isn’t so easy to explain. It just is: the frayed stream of drum cymbals, the random clatter of wooden instruments, the subtle strum of guitar strings. Unlike other genres, jazz is based strictly on feeling: beneath the layered rhythm lies a heartbeat that pushes the music along. It’s part timing and part intuition, like the unspoken communication of two veterans on a sports team who practice plays and learn each other’s tendencies; after a while, one knows the other’s next move before they do and no-look passes aren’t much of a gamble.

It seems Lionel Loueke and Robert Glasper have similar camaraderie, given the fluidity of Loueke’s new album, Heritage (on which Glasper is a co-producer). For Loueke, a West African jazz guitarist and vocalist, this is his third album for Blue Note Records, and the first since 2010’s Mwaliko, a mostly acoustic affair on which he and singer Angelique Kidjo used lively syncopation to bridge the cultural gap between African music and American jazz. Meanwhile, Glasper has made great strides in the past three years. His last two studio albums — Double Booked and Black Radio — were eccentric and ambitious. They merged traditional jazz standards with alternative sounds, resulting in an ethereal journey through lush sonic arrangements.

Glasper’s stamp is evident here. While Heritage is ultimately as calming as its predecessor, the sound is varied somewhat with energetic percussion and rolling keys. On “Ouidah,” for instance, Loueke uses escalating drums and acoustic guitars to create a celestial listening experience. The results aren’t as Afrocentric as his previous work, though they’re still rooted in esoteric soul. Such is the focus of Heritage: while Loueke pays homage to his Benin roots, the soundtrack varies to reflect the places he visited. As a result, this album presents a textured look at his vast influences. For instance, “Tribal Dance” is Brazilian jazz meets Afrobeat; a light drum rhythm and hypnotic chants give this song a transcending feel. “Chardon” is a quiet guitar solo through which Loueke evokes a nocturnal flair. Heritage thoughtfully blends oceanic rhythms. Loueke certainly got some help along the way, but he’s clearly the leader in this domain. The result is an album that's contemplative, sincere and downright comforting.

- Marcus Moore