Otherworldly, Hauntingly Beautiful Ethio-Jazz from Its Best-Known Star
Ethiopian themes tend to be simple but often profoundly so, no surprise considering that Ethiopia is the birthplace of humanity and culture. Sketches of Ethiopia, the latest large-ensemble album by Mulatu Astatke, the world’s best-known exponent of Ethio-jazz, is rich with what may be both echoes and foreshadowing of everything from blues, to reggae, to funk and Egyptian music as well. That most of the album’s tracks are original compositions doesn’t change that back-and-forth mirror effect. The compositions often have the dark, dusky minor-key modes and hypnotic clip-clop rhythms typically associated with Ethiopian music, while Astatke puts his signature eclectic stamp on them. The ensemble is also an eclectic bunch, comprising both Astatke’s London-based touring band as well as Ethiopian musicians recorded on their home turf and also in France. Like everything Astatke has done, this is a deep album.
Either/Orchestra bandleader and Ethio-jazz maven Russ Gershon gets the ultimate validation by having his tune, Azmari, kick off Astatke’s album. It’s a delicious mix of eerie modal vamping and American noir, Indris Hassun’s otherworldly trilling massinqo fiddle juxtaposed with rich horn and string swells and a strangely nebulous surprise interlude. The first Astatke tune here, Gamo, opens with a brooding horn riff that sounds straight from an early Burning Spear album – how’s that for coming full circle? Thickets of lutes and percussion underpin lively horn call-and-response throughout this swaying, propulsive anthem.
Hager Fiker, a traditional theme, opens as a moody fanfare, Astatke’s arrangemente moving swiftly from the roots of the blues to absolute noir, driven by Alexander Hawkins’ murky, menacing low lefthand piano contrasting with bright, bluesy horns and Middle Eastern-tinged flute. Gambella develops very subtly from a long, suspenseful intro to a galloping minor-key funk romp. Asossa Derache works a similar dichotomy but more darkly and intensely, its long rustling introduction giving way to a brisk clip-clop theme packed with biting solos and conversations between James Arben’s tenor sax and Byron Wallen’s trumpet, building to a big, noir blues crescendo.
The traditional tune Gumuz is recast as dissociatively anachronistic, low-key mid-70s fusion with a choir overdubbed in the background. Motherland Abay has flickering orchestration that develops almost imperceptibly from a nocturnal tone poem to a slinky sway, muted trumpet in the background providing a distant menace, lit up with oboe, ominously glimmering piano and Astatke’s own uneasily lingering vibraphone. The album winds up with two different versions of Surma, another fusiony track that hints at reggae. To call this one of the best jazz albums of 2013 practically goes without saying. One drawback: the production is on the sterile side, everything in its perfect digital place – it threatens to subsume the raw intensity that’s so front-and-center on Astatke’s earlier recordings.
No comments yet.