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.
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.
One of the best albums of 2011 comes from the Washington, DC-based Funk Ark. Their new one, From the Rooftops is one of those rare records that’s just as good a listen as it is a dance mix. The 11-piece instrumental band blend elements of Afrobeat, oldschool funk, dark Ethiopique vamps and psychedelia, with the occasional clever dub tinge, into an irresistibly tuneful, original sound.
The first track, A Blade Won’t Cut Another Blade plays off one of those clubby, downtempo, trip-hop-ish beats, except that this is live, with a bit of a vintage Hugh Masekela-style tune, a baritone sax solo that kicks off with a snarl, and an unexpectedly intense, brooding, minor-key outro. Like many of the songs here, it’s got a trick ending.
Track two, Diaspora, is a hypnotic Ethiopian-style tune built around a riff from the band’s four-piece horn section that reminds of Get Up, Stand Up, with subtle, dubwise organ touches and a good-natured tenor sax solo. Funky DC is sort of a vintage 70s War-style lo-rider groove gone to Ethiopia, with a couple of hip-hop cameos to get the crowd going. The most potent track here might be El Beasto, with its hard-hitting, galloping, minor-key attack, sounding like a Mulatu Astatke classic from 1972 or so; once again, there’s a cool baritone sax solo and some edgy trading off between the organ and the horns.
Carretera Libre kicks off with a fluttery, suspenseful horn riff, hits a hypnotic two-chord vamp and then a subtly devious trumpet solo in a completely different scale than the one the band is playing in. Horchata pulls in a little Afro-Cuban rhythm, while Katifo (The Spider) goes back to the Afrobeat, with tinkly, psychedelic electric piano playing off the horns. Once this gets exposure in the hip-hop world, every producer on the planet will be sampling the title track, with its big, anthemic verse, smoothly majestic chorus and swirling, psychedelic organ. The album ends with the early 70s style psychedelic funk of Pavement and the irrepressibly sunny, blippy Power Struggle. Not one bad song here: this is top-ten-albums-of-the-year material. If you like Antibalas, you’ll love the Funk Ark.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #539:
Either/Orchestra – The Calculus of Pleasure
Before Ethiopiques, before Either/Orchestra became Mulatu Astatke’s North American backing unit, they were a very clever, original, often noirish big band. When they weren’t doing cinematic, genre-defying instrumentals that bridge the gap between rock and jazz, that is. Literally everything saxophonist/composer Russ Gershon’s long-running Boston outfit has released is worth hearing; this 1992 release gets the nod because it’s probably their darkest and most cohesive. The real stunner here is a sad, elegaic ballad aptly titled Grey. There’s also the bracing, uneasy swing of Whisper Not; Bennie Moten’s Weird Nightmare, with its tongue-in-cheek Mingus echoes; the cinematic, suspenseful Consenting Adults; Ecaroh, which alternates between creepy bossa nova and swinging contentment; Unnatural Pastime, which begins as an animated jump blues but gets dark fast; and the epics Miles Away and The Hard Blues. Most of this is streaming at myspace (and surprisingly, this playlist isn’t interrupted by ads); here’s a random torrent via Six By Six.
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.