Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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October 15, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Tommy T – The Prester John Sessions

Prester John was a mythical medieval contradiction in terms, a benign despot whose apocryphal, abundant kingdom sparked many fruitless expeditions to locate it. One popular theory at the time was that it was in Ethiopia. Centuries later, Ethiopian-born Gogol Bordello bassist Tommy T has used the myth as a springboard for one of the funnest, most hypnotic albums of the year. If the snowfall of recent days has gotten you down, this utterly psychedelic, summery cd will get you up again. It doesn’t sound much like Gogol Bordello (though there is a deliciously fat reggae remix of that band’s song Lifers at the end as a bonus cut), but in its own way it’s just as good. It’s a groove-driven, unique blend of Afrobeat, oldschool roots reggae and classic dub. There are echoes of Ethiopian jazz, notably Mulatu Astatke of Broken Flowers fame, but the closest approximation is another groundbreaking album that came out about a year and a half ago, the sprawling Dub Colossus project.

The first track sets the stage for much of the rest of the album, a catchy reggae number with bubbly organ and tasty, melodic bass prominent in the mix, but also in tricky 7/8 time, with screechy massinqo (Ethiopian fidddle) playing what are often essentially lead guitar lines. If that isn’t original, you decide what is. The following cut is slinky, dubwise reggae with brief lyrics in Amharic. Then they go jangly with an almost Appalachian feel and minor key acoustic guitar: from a distance, it could be Tinariwen.

The Eighth Wonder kicks off with a hypnotic early 70s style funk/soul groove with Fender Rhodes piano and a blazing horn chart, massinqo sailing blissfully overhead. They follow that with a gripping, dark dub rearrangement of a couple of ancient folksongs. East-West Express is a juicy dancefloor vamp, sort of Fela gone further east. Cleverly nicking the hook from Marley’s Crazy Baldhead, the gorgeously eerie, rustically-tinged Tribute to a King segues into a bounding dance, practically a jig with massinqo, string synth and wah guitar. It works deliriously well. The album wraps up with a soulful dialogue between scorned lovers and then a strikingly contemplative, atmospheric number that finally bursts into flame when a bright, insistent horn section takes over. All the way through, the playing is inspired, and the production is far deeper and heavier than your typical digital recording. It works just as well on headphones as it does with a boisterous crowd. World music fans and stoners alike will be all over this one.

December 21, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment