Auspiciously Eclectic Ethiopian Sounds from Samuel Yirga
On his new album Guzo, Samuel Yirga polishes his reputation as a distinctive, individualistic voice on the piano. The Ethiopian-born, classically trained player has an extremely eclectic background encompassing jazz and funk as well as dub, notably with popular Ethiopiques project Dub Colossus. Here he blends the biting, austere motifs of traditional Ethiopian music with pretty much every other style he’s mined, emphasis on jazz as well as expansively moody, neoromantic solo pieces. As you might expect from someone with a background in dub, Yirga has a remarkable appreciation for space and dynamics: he lets notes linger, isn’t afraid to get very, very quiet, and his music is all the richer for it. While he can play very expressively, he chooses his spots, developing his ideas slowly and judiciously, leaving plenty of breathing room. The album was recorded with two different bands, in both his hometown of Addis Ababa and in the UK. All but one of the tracks are originals.
Yirga’s most exciting compatriot here is massinko fiddle player Endris Hassan, whose shivery, microtonal lines add an especially haunting edge to the pulsing, dub-influenced opening track as well as two others. Track two, Tiwista, features somberly bracing Ben Somers tenor sax over a steady, practically minimalist piano/bass vamp that Yirga eventually takes skyward with a series of spiraling clusters. The understatedly funky Firma Ena Wereket features more chilling massinko, a lushly dramatic horn chart and some memorably creepy, tersely chromatic explorations from Yirga – it’s one of the album’s high points.
From there, Yirga establishes a solo theme that sounds sort of like a minor-key variation on Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, which he returns to several times , first taking on a majestic, gospel-flavored tinge, then working it through a pensive, minimalist waltz. The most lushly arranged pieces here feature the Creole Choir of Cuba, first exploring a nebulously cinematic theme with electric guitar, reggae-ish bass and towering banks of horns, then soaring through a similarly lush version of Rotary Connection’s 1971 psychedelic soul anthem I Am the Black Gold of the Sun. This stuff is a lot closer to film music than jazz.
Moving along, Yirga romps through a carefree, dancing solo number, followed by the strikingly eclectic My Head, an ensemble piece that incorporates everything from romping salsa to creepy music-box motifs and artful vibraphone voicings, set against distantly menacing, swirling tenor sax from Feleke Hailu. The album ends with a ferocious return to moody, modal Ethiopiques and then a new wave soul number, African Diasopra, Nicolette Suwoton stoically lamenting how Africa has been looted by imperialists and their collaborators: “You give your gifts away for shiny plastic things.” It’s an unexpected way to end an album full of surprises.