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.
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.
Either/Orchestra’s long and remarkable career has taken them from a sort of punk jazz, through a latin jazz phase and then on to worldwide acclaim collaborating with the dean of Ethiopian jazz, Mulatu Astatke. While there’s been some turnover in the group, bandleader/saxophonist Russ Gershon has been a rock of consistency as far as strong, imaginative tunesmithing is concerned (their 1992 album The Calculus of Pleasure made our 1000 Best Albums of All Time list). Saturday at the New School, Gershon unveiled a suite of New York premieres recently commissioned by Chamber Music America: after all these years, this band’s creativity just gets more and more amazing. This had to be one of the two or three best New York concerts of the year.”We’re going to play this, and then we’re going to pass out,” Gershon joked about halfway through almost three hours of new compositions and some other tunes recently rescued from the archives in Ethiopia.
Gershon’s stock in trade is wit and sophistication. The new compositions and arrangements revealed an unexpected gravitas and lush, majestic power to rival or maybe surpass anything this band’s ever done, effortlessly and imaginatively bridging the gap between Cuba and Ethiopia. Either/Orchestra in its many incarnations has always had the sound of a big band twice their size (this version has ten players): the shifting textures and voicings of these new compositions are equal to anything Gil Evans ever came up with. Another strength of Gershon’s is how he writes to the strengths of his players: alto saxophonist Hailey Niswanger’s restless intensity, pianist Gilson Schachnik’s fluid melodicism, trombonist Joel Yennior’s febrile, cerebral expansiveness and drummer Pablo Bencid’s effortlessly spectacular facility for demanding polyrhythms.
Interestingly, the new suite, The Collected Unconscious – which was being recorded for broadcast on WBGO’s Jazz Set early next year – incorporates several waltzes, from the unselfconsciously attractive, Beatlesque opening theme, to several bracing, acidic variations on Ethiopian riffs that occur later on (the whole thing runs about an hour and a half) along with a little straight-up swing and several richly noir segments. Yennior’s long, slow burn on the second segment, which elliptically mixed loping Ethiopian triplet rhythm with hints of Afro-Cubanisms, was one of dozens of highlights; Niswanger’s no-nonsense attack during a long Ethiopian vamp was another, with Gershon himself contributing casually climactic passages on tenor and soprano sax and joining Niswanger on flute on another. At one point, Bencid had one beat going with the hi-hat, another with the cowbell he had on a kick and a third which he used as the basis for a solo while not missing a beat with his magic left foot.
As the suite unwound, the group went deep into noir territory, took it back to Cuba with just drums and Vicente Lebron’s congas against slinky Rick McLaughlinbass and Schachnik’s piano. After a break, they unveiled three new versions of classic Ethiopian themes. As has been documented on NPR and elsewhere, Haile Selassie discovered western brass band music, but there was no such thing in Ethiopia, so he hired an Armenian immigrant, Nerses Nalbandian, who would become a sort of royal court music teacher and arranger. He also happened to be a fan of Afro-Cuban music: it was as if a proto Either/Orchestra had been born. Gershon’s new arrangements of these songs – which probably haven’t been performed since the early 70s, maybe earlier – utilized the same artful exchange of voices that’s always characterized his work. The most spectacular of the new ones, with charts by Yennior, was a stunning and hard-hitting example of the sheer number of permutations that an inspired arranger can pull out of one simple, eerie riff. After that, they treated the crowd to a rousing, lengthy, funky dedication to New Orleans, then the politically-fueled Town Hall Meeting, featuring a hilariously bellicose duel between trumpeter Tom Halter and baritone saxophonist Charlie Kohlhase. They closed with their new version of Auld Lang Syne, which of course bears virtually no resemblance to the original: Gershon took one of those gorgeously apprehensive Ethiopian riffs and expanded on it, interpolating a little Scotland to see if anybody might be paying attention. Ostensibly, that’s also scheduled for broadcast on BGO for New Year’s Eve. If this is what this group does with a commission, Chamber Music America might as well just make Either/Orchestra their house band.
Bio Ritmo’s new album La Verdad uses oldschool, classic Fania era salsa as its stepping-off point and blends in trippy, hypnotic, sometimes fiery elements of Ethiopian jazz, Afrobeat and dub for a sound that’s absolutely unique, and absolutely psychedelic. Keyboardist Marlysse Simmons-Argandona is their secret weapon. Sometimes she anchors the music with darkly reverberating Fender Rhodes lines; other times she goes way up for a glimmering, pointillistic, starlit vibe; then she’ll swoop in with the organ or shift to swinging Afro-Cuban salsa piano riffs. The horns move from bright, incisive bursts, to big, lushly jazzy swells, with frequent breaks for individual solos, as the timbales rattle, the congas hold the tunes close to the ground and the bass rises with a body-tugging groove. Singer Rei Alvarez is a mercurial, slyly surreal presence: when there are lyrics here, they work on several different levels.
As you would expect from a great oldschool album, there’s a distinct Side One and Side Two side here. The opening cut features unexpected touches like wah-wah keys and a blippy bass solo along with some tasty brass parts. A couple of the jazzier tracks, like the title number and Caravana del Vejicante (Clown Parade) often resemble the excellent, shapeshifting latin-influenced jazz group Either/Orchestra, with their cleverly shifting brass segments and smirking keyboard interludes. The third track, Dina’s Mambo, contrasts psychedelic slinky, conspiratorially swinging, psychedelic keys with hi-beam horns; the fourth, Carnaval, builds nonchalantly to a punked-out Afrobeat feel. There’s also the deliciously noir Verguenza (Shame); the bouncy, surprisingly carefree, sarcastic Majadero (The Noodge); the even creepier, Thelonious Monk-ish Lola’s Dilemma with its subtle dub echoes spicing up a tiptoeing son montuno melody; and the hidden track, an absolutely killer dub version of the second cut. If you wish you’d lived through the classic salsa era of the 70s – or if you did – this one’s for you. Bio Ritmo play the album release show for this one tonight at 10 at Southpaw; those who prefer the superior sonics at SOB’s should check out their Manhattan release show there at 8 PM on Nov 18. Also recommended: Bio Ritmo’s sister band Miramar, who recreate classic Puerto Rican boleros from the 1950s (and create some of their own) with a similarly dark psychedelic edge.
Bet you’re wondering when we’re ever going to do something other than the countdown here. It’ll happen – and would have happened if we hadn’t been locked out of our building on Tuesday! In the meantime, as we do every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album was #616:
Mulatu Astatke – Ethiopiques Vol. 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale, 1969-74
The best-known Ethiopian jazz bandleader, Mulatu Astatke continues to be sought after as a collaborator by all sorts of western musicians. His career on this side of the globe may have been springboarded by his numerous contributions to the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s film Broken Flowers, but he was well-known as the father of Ethiopian funk long before that – he’s every bit as much of an innovator, and a great dance tunesmith, as Fela Kuti was. This album collects most of the bittersweet, memorable themes from early in his career: the iconic Tezeta (Nostalgia), the longing of Metche Dershe (When Will I Get There), the love songs Munaye and Gubelye, the eerie, reggaeish Sabye and the rousing overture Dewel (The Bell) among the fourteen tracks here. Intricate, complex yet danceable, it’s a good introduction to a guy who needs none among African music fans. Here’s a random torrent via Totem Songs.
More bands should do live albums. Boston-based Ethiopian groove orchestra Debo Band are as good a candidate as any. If their expansive new four-song ep Flamingoh (Pink Bird Dawn), recorded live on the band’s 2010 East African tour and available for five bucks at their bandcamp site, is any indication, their upcoming full-length concert cd will be unbelievable. Although they frequently indulge in the tricky polyrhythms in most Ethiopian dance music, this one grooves along to a pretty much straight-up 4/4. If these songs don’t make you move, you need to be defibrillated.
It’s amazing how interesting Debo Band can make a one-chord jam sound. Through all the catchy hooks, the hypnotic vamps, the funky grooves and sizzling horn motifs, there’s one chord change on the album. It’s on one of the songs’ choruses – that’s it. For those who listen to music from India, for example, that’s to be expected, but for music as funky as this, it’s quite a change. That it’s barely noticeable says a lot about how much fun it is. The six-minute opening track works a swaying, insanely catchy minor-key funk vamp with wah guitar, tight horns and incisive staccato violin accents from Jonah Rapino: he jumps on the hook and takes a juicy funk solo over the steady pulse of PJ Goodwin’s bass and the slinky shuffle of Keith Waters’ drums. Danny Mekkonen’s tenor sax sneaks in almost imperceptibly, then out, then in again with the rest of the section in tow. It’s a monster track. When’s the last time you heard a juicy funk solo played by a violin? Ever? That they’d have one pretty much speaks for itself.
The second cut has frontman Bruck Tesfaye singing lyrics in Amharic, careening along with wah-wah on the violin and snarling, distorted upper-register guitar from Brendon Wood. When it reaches the point where the interlocking guitar, horn and violin themes all mingle, it’s psychedelic beyond belief. The tension between squawking tenor sax and wailing electric lead guitar as the intensity rises slowly toward the end is typical of how this band works a crowd of dancers. A fervent, impassioned guest vocalist lends her powerful alto voice to the third cut, a bouncy, hook-driven joint with playful tradeoffs between the horns and Stacey Cordeiro’s accordion as it opens, followed by a seemingly endless series of oldschool funk turnarounds and a big fluttering crescendo at the end. The last cut works down to a mysterious, slinky reggae groove punctuated by a low ominous pulse from Arik Grier’s sousaphone, down even lower to a spooky dub breakdown, and out with a bang. Debo Band make frequent stops in NYC: their show last month at Joe’s Pub was characteristically fun. Watch this space for upcoming dates.
Debo Band (pronounced “debbo”) first crossed our radar via powerhouse Balkan band Ansambl Mastika, who’d shared a bill with them at Don Pedro’s in Bushwick a few months back. In the far swankier yet confining digs of Joe’s Pub last night, it was incongruous watching the band lay down one irresistible groove after another while the practically sold-out house bounced in their seats. Finally, toward the end of the show, a guy sitting just to the right of the stage became the voice of reason, bounding up on his feet, the band’s guest vocalist joining him from about ten feet away onstage as there was no room to get past the tables. What a party this would have been if they’d cleared the floor for dancing.
In over an hour onstage, the eleven-piece band and their special guests from Ethiopia swung and bounced through one hypnotic, slowly crescendoing number after another. Their dapper, black-clad frontman smiled his way through several Amharic-language songs with an unexpectedly disquieting trill in his voice that reminded of John Lydon – did PiL listen to Ethiopian music? You never know. The band’s tuba player did three-on-four as the bassist played snaky triplets along with the rest of the band, which included two tenor saxes, two violins, accordion, Telecaster, drums and a percussionist wailing away on a set of three boomy tom-toms. At one point, one of the tenor players switched to baritone sax and despite the club’s characteristically dodgy sonics, it was low-register heaven.
Several of the songs ran circular, snaky themes that built slowly from hypnotic and swirling to bright crescendos, the saxes and violins hinting at how crazy they could get but never quite going there. One of the violin players had a wah-wah pedal, which he used to maximize the funk on the intoxicatingly catchy, intense minor-key vamp they closed the set with. The trio of guests up onstage with them (whom they’d met at a festival in Zanzibar) energized the crowd with their showy dance moves, one of the women delivering throaty, impassioned, wailing vocals when she wasn’t swaying and undulating, her several heavy, metal necklaces bouncing against her chest and adding yet another texture to the beat. In the middle, they brought it down a little with a reggae-tinged beat, adding some subtle dub echoes; at the end, the crowd screamed for an encore and this time the club gave them one, another bright, catchy, funky vamp that could have gone on three times as long as it did and everyone would have enjoyed it three times as much. If this show is any indication, their brand-new live ep must be amazing.
Either/Orchestra’s first album in five years, Mood Music for Time Travellers, was worth the wait. Over the past several years, the deviously eclectic ten-piece ensemble have collaborated with pretty much every Ethiopian jazz legend, most famously Mulatu Astatke, of Broken Flowers fame. So it’s no surprise there’s plenty of Ethiopique to pique you here, but there’s also plenty of saxophonist/bandleader Russ Gershon’s latin vamps and signature wit. Much of this is cinematic, some of it is hypnotic, and the compositions, Gershon’s especially, are generous, giving his bandmates plenty of room to solo. As the title implies, there’s a frequent goodnaturedly satirical, psychedelic flavor to several of the songs.
The tongue-in-cheek but vivid period piece Coolocity evokes a David Lynchian Mulholland Drive of the mind circa 1958, balmy noir atmospherics over a warped clave beat and a big portentous riff leaping from the midst of a conga solo from Vicente Lebron. Thirty Five, by bassist Rick McLaughlin is a deliciously mysterious clinic in implied melody and foreshadowing, Gershon’s soprano sax supplying a sneaky snakecharmer vibe all the way through to a distantly mysterioso piano solo by Rafael Alcala. Alcala’s organ anchors the swaying funk of The Petrograd Revision, one of the more Ethiopian-tinged numbers with its circular theme, highlighted by Godwin Louis’ warm alto sax followed by Daniel Rosenthal’s cloudbursting trumpet.
Another first-rate, cinematic cut is Ropa Loca, blending the best of both the Ethiopian and latin influences, salsa piano emerging playfully behind fluid trumpet lines, Gershon adding an air of disquiet which sends the ensemble running around in pairs or trios – the arrangement is great fun. Trombonist Joel Yennior (who has a delightful trio album just out) contributes the percussively hypnotic Latin Dimensions and the gorgeously soul-infused Suriname, evoking Hugh Masekela with its circling central hook and sly, contented baritone sax from Kurtis Rivers. There’s also the playfully deadpan backbeat theme The (One Of a Kind) Shimmy that opens the album; Beaucoups Kookoo, the most Astatke-inflected number here; A Portrait of Lindsey Schust, a fond, vividly evocative homage, and McLaughlin’s richly arranged, suspensefully charged History Lesson that winds it up. It’s hard to believe that they’ve been around 25 years, albeit with some lineup changes as one famous jazz guy after another cycled through the band – they’ll be celebrating that milestone with another live album in 2011. You’ll see this one high on our Best Albums of 2010 list at the end of the year: it’s out now on Accurate Records. Watch this space for a NYC show coming in October.
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.