Creativity seems to bloom around Herbie Hancock, the legendary pianist, keyboardist and composer who’s been mapping new musical territory for six decades.
In the case of Berkeley-reared flutist/vocalist Elena Pinderhughes and Benin-born guitarist/vocalist Lionel Loueke, the seeds for their new suite A Diaspora Journey were planted on the road in Hancock’s band.
“Lionel and I have been playing together in Herbie’s group for years,” Pinderhughes says from her Los Angeles home. “We’d often spend downtime in rehearsals experimenting together—it was an idea in the back of our heads that we should do a project.”
When Kuumbwa approached Pinderhughes about submitting a grant to The Creative Work Fund, the 27-year-old immediately reached out to Loueke. A Diaspora Journey illuminates the rhythmic DNA that courses from West Africa and South America to the Caribbean and the U.S. The world premiere of their five-part suite at Kuumbwa features a stellar quintet powered by drummer Justin Tyson, electric bassist Burniss Travis, who also plays with the drummer in pianist Robert Glasper’s band. Elena’s older brother, acclaimed pianist/keyboardist Samora, rounds out the collective.
“A big part of A Diaspora Journey is the element of ritual, with chants and multiple people singing, but we’re not setting her words to music,” Pinderhughes says. “There are some lyric-based parts, but it’s not a narrative. The subject is vast, and there are so many stories within the ‘Diaspora,’ so we think it can be told from A to Z.
“It’s not a timeline-based thing or story,” she continues. “We’re trying to highlight the similarities between so many different people’s stories. A rhythm you thought came from Brazil, and it’s also in Barbados. There are these connections between Puerto Rico and Benin and Ghana, with these rhythms that come from the same family tree. Different parts of the suite highlight different types of music.”
In conjunction with Monday’s world premiere, Pinderhughes and Loueke will discuss the new work on Tuesday, Feb. 21, at Kuumbwa with Santa Cruz-based Speak For Change podcast host Thomas Sage Pederson, sponsored by the Santa Cruz County Black Health Matters Initiative.
In many ways, the 49-year-old Loueke hails from one of the Diaspora’s sources, as the tiny West African nation now known as Benin was for centuries a major point of embarkation for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. His music embodies a post-colonial journey that maps onto these deep historical fissures.
The third of five brothers, he was raised in an academic household where his father, a mathematics professor and his mother, a high school teacher, encouraged his creative pursuits. Musically precocious, he moved to the Ivory Coast in 1990 to study music at the National Institute of Art, where he soaked up the sounds of jazz guitar greats Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass and George Benson.
Loueke refined his playing during four years at the American School of Modern Music in Paris, eventually earning a scholarship to Boston’s Berklee College of Music. At Berklee, he realized that the traditional music he grew up playing in Benin and his passion for jazz was deeply enmeshed.
“I could combine all the different rhythms and the melodies I was playing back home with the harmonies I was studying,” he explains. “Before that, I never really saw that they were all related. It was almost like a puzzle and finding the last piece.”
In 2001, all the career pieces came together for Loueke when he was tapped for the elite master’s program at the Thelonious Monk Institute. By the end of the first year, he’d been recruited by trumpeter Terence Blanchard, and he’s been on the road ever since, touring the world with iconic jazz musicians like Hancock and Dave Holland and the late Chick Corea.
“I’m gravitating more toward my own music now, but then these guys are not going to be here forever,” Loueke says.
Pinderhughes is also focusing more on developing her original music than her sidewoman gigs. As she prepares to release a very different project focusing on her original songs, A Diaspora Journey marks her emergence as an up-and-coming composer in the jazz community.
“I’ve stepped back from a bunch of things, and I’ve been saying no to a bunch of one-offs,” she says. “I’m still working with Common, Herbie and Christian Scott. The three of them keep me pretty busy, and if my brother calls, I’m there. But I’m taking this year to finish my album.”
Elena Pinderhughes and Lionel Loueke perform Monday, Feb. 20, 7pm at Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. $36.75; $42.00; $21.00/students. kuumbwajazz.org