New York is still the music capital of the U.S.--look in the music listings on any given night and you'll always find a promising show or two, and they usually turn out to be better than you expect.
Such was the case the other night with Lionel Loueke, a jazz guitarist originally from the West African country of Benin, now based in northern New Jersey. He's releasing his debut for Blue Note, Karibu, and a friend and I essentially stumbled into his CD release party knowing very little about him.
He plays a classical guitar with thick nylon strings through a tiny amp and speaker, and when I saw his rig, I expected a pretty straightforward jazz tone, perhaps with a little chorus effect...but somewhere in his chain he had a guitar synth that let him get all sorts of unexpected sounds, like Hammond B3 organ and high-pitched digital twinkles. He also used a harmonizer on his voice, which gave it a tropical over-the-ocean feel. The compositions were beautiful and complicated without being fussy: a blend of major-key Afrobeat (think King Sunny Ade) and guitar jazz in the Pat Metheny mold, with an amazing rhythm section--particularly drummer Ferenc Nemeth--who played around and behind and inside the beat without the annoying metronomic quality you find in some overschooled players. I'll leave further description to this recent profile in the New York Times.
As an aside, the plasticware sector of the music business may be hurting, but live music in New York is as strong as ever. Lionel Loueke was standing room only, and a later show at another club (featuring real as opposed to synthesized Hammond B3) was still crowded when the last set was due to start at 11:30.