Herbie Hancock's gig at last year's London Jazz Festival was a patchy affair. The sound was poor, the drummer heavy-handed, and the decision to cover "I Just Called to Say I Love You", arguably Stevie Wonder's most sinful creation, questionable. The evening was saved, however, by one of Hancock's sidemen, the Beninese guitarist-singer Lionel Loueke.
It is a measure of the high regard in which Loueke is held that Hancock, one of the few jazzmen today with the star status of his own former bandleader Miles Davis, granted the guitarist a 15-minute solo slot. And he mesmerised the audience with a deft virtuosity that avoided tried and tested bebop "licks".
New York-based Loueke is a consummate jazz musician with a great command of complex harmony. His African origins are writ large in his music; the man and his work are symbols of the internationa lisation of jazz. Whether appearing in his trio, Gilfema, or playing solo, he is fascinating to watch. Graceful and poised, he taps the neck of his custom-made nylon-string guitar with his fingers as if it were a bongo or conga. His chords can be full and rich, and they invariably perambulate into fleet, playful percussion. Occasionally he uses samples and electronics, but deploys these with subtlety.
Loueke is a sensitive player who has a huge gift for nuancing his improvisations with delicate tonal detail at low volume. And then there's his voice: an imposing figure who stands well over six feet tall, he has a fluttering, evanescent falsetto. His choruses, often sung in a whisper, recall the delivery of the Cameroonian master bassist-singer Richard Bona or the Brazilian icon Milton Nascimento.
Loueke will perform at the South Bank Centre in London during this year's African Music Festival, and will surely be one of the highlights of the event. He is just one of the artists in the line-up whose work blurs the boundaries between jazz and so-called "world" music.
Like Loueke, the Tunisian Anouar Brahem is a virtuoso string player. However, his weapon of choice is a non-western instrument: the oud, or short-necked lute, which is found all over North Africa and Turkey. This bulbous, beautifully carved wooden device yields a quivering, plaintive sound that loosely evokes classical guitar but has a resonance not dissimilar to that of plucked piano strings. For the past five years, Brahem has led a trio featuring the pianist François Couturier and the accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier. His music has an inherently lyrical quality.
Brahem's harmonies are rarely those of conventional jazz, but he engages with the jazz tradition through improvisation, in which he displays pinpoint precision. Each note is valued, as if it were a choice word in a love letter. His concert on 21 May will require concentration from the audience, but for those who persevere, the rewards will be great.
Also appearing will be two veteran South African artists, the guitarist Lucky Ranku and the singer Pinise Saul, who come from the opposite end of the spectrum, making lively music that draws on kwela and marabi rhythms. Both of them have been resident in the UK for several decades and have played with legendary South African jazz musicians like the late Dudu Pukwana, who made a big impact on the London scene in the 1970s. Regardless of their jazz credentials, both Ranku and Saul remain unshakeably tied to the indigenous rhythms and melodies of their homeland.
Mali's Seckou Keita allies a sensual voice to superlative kora playing. Natacha Atlas, based in London, is unpredictably eclectic, equally fond of traditional Egyptian music and novel esperantos of eastern and western sounds. Zimbabwe's Netsayi Chigwendere has created her own brand of "Chimurenga soul", highly political, denoun cing injustice and alienation.
Although the London debut of Morocco's Najat Aâtabou is also likely to be a show-stopper, the appearance of the Senegalese superstar Omar Pène and Le Super Diamono de Dakar is not to be missed. Formed in the 1980s, the band took the home-grown mbalax and infused it with reggae, rock and jazz to create an intri guingly hybrid sound. Verse-chorus structures form Le Super Diamono's artistic backbone; however, their songs can feature the sorts of tricky horn arrangement and lengthy interlude that betray an obvious affinity to the improvisatory muse of American jazz.
Much of the music in the festival programme could be labelled "afrojazz" or "global fusion", though the artists themselves usually eschew such clumsy terms. The reality is that western and non-western musicians alike are increasingly keen to draw on each other's traditions. Just as Damon Albarn and David Byrne are bringing "world" music into the pop arena, so African artists are incorporating jazz, rock and funk influences into their music on their own terms. The sonic traffic flows both ways.
The African Music Festival is at the South Bank Centre, London SE1, until 30 May. More information: www. southbankcentre.co.uk
Lionel Loueke's "Virgin Forest" is out now on ObliqSound