The new sound of Ethio jazz from Samuel Yirga



Anyone seriously sucked into the beauty and passion of vintage Ethiopian music by Buda Records' invaluable Ethiopiques series may well wonder where the good contemporary music is from that East African country. Well, from all accounts there's not much good stuff these days. A few years ago Terp Records, the label run by Ex guitarist Terrie Hessels, released a terrific collection of recent Ethiopian dance tracks called Ililta! New Ethiopian Dance Music, and the same label put out the latest collaboration between the Ex and saxophonist Getatchew Mekuria, Y'Anbessaw Tezeta, but generally the pickings are slim. I'll admit that I was skeptical when I first heard about the Ethio jazz practiced by the young pianist Samuel Yirga, who's probably known best for his involvement in the British world-music project Dub Colossus, which tepidly mashes up simulacrums of 70s Ethiopian sounds with funk, reggae, and jazz. But while Yirga's recent debut album, Guzo (Real World), contains some serious flaws, the best tracks are truly something special.

Ethiopians have been deeply interested in jazz for decades, most famously through the work of the great Mulatu Astatke. As I wrote of him in a blog post a couple of years ago:

Astatke was the most cosmopolitan and studied musician of the country's golden era, and he got hooked on jazz while studying engineering in London in the 50s; his growing obsession eventually led him to Boston, where he became the first African to study at the prestigious Berklee College of Music (he was long gone, though, by the time Gershon formed the Either/Orchestra in 1985). He worked at developing a take on American jazz intertwined with Ethiopian music, and much of his output is still available on a handful of reissues, including New York-Addis-London: The Story of Ethio Jazz 1965-1975 (Strut) and Ethiopiques 4: Ethnic Jazz and Musique Instrumentale 1969-74 (Buda). Jim Jarmusch used a lot of that same music in the soundtrack of his film Broken Flowers.

On Guzo, Yirga juggles the American postbop model of jazz and a handful of beautiful yet pensive solo pieces, but my favorite compositions draw upon melodic motifs of his homeland, especially those that feature the remarkable masenqo playing of Endris Hassan, where tightly coiled, fiercely rhythmic, nasal bowed lines mirror the biting ululations of singer Genet Masresha, who shines on "The Blues of Wollo."

The album's real low point comes midway, when the pianist is joined by a cappella group Creole Choir of Cuba, who happen to be label mates—the collaboration smacks of a producer's idea, and there's not much musical spark between the parties on a slick, out-of-place cover of "I Am the Black Gold of the Sun" by Chicago's Rotary Connection. The album ends with the bonus track, another lukewarm collaboration—this one featuring the veteran Brit acid-jazz singer Nicolette (who also sings on the Rotary Connection cover). Yirga is a skilled player, but he's yet to break out with his own sound. But I don't think it's a coincidence that the best tracks here are the ones cut solely in Addis Ababa, while the blandest, most commercial stuff featured some heavy overdubs and production tweaks made later in England. Here's hoping he can resist the crossover yoke. Below you can check out one of my favorite pieces, the meditative "Abet Abet," which features some deeply resonant Fender Rhodes grooves.

Today's playlist:

Claire Chase, Terrestre (New Focus)
Miles Davis, Bags' Groove (Prestige/OJC)
Joanna Wozny, As in a Mirror, Darkly (Kairos)
Jozef Van Wisem, The Joy That Never Ends (Important)
Steve Noble & Stephen O'Malley, St. Francis Duo (Bo'Weavil)

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