The Real Ethio Jazz | Bleader

The Real Ethio Jazz


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Mulatu Astatke: Mulatu Steps Ahead
  • Mulatu Astatke: Mulatu Steps Ahead
Boston's Either/Orchestra, who headlined Saturday night's program at the Chicago Jazz Festival a couple weeks ago, have been exploring Ethiopian popular music since the late 90s, predating the 1998 launch of Buda Records' essential Ethiopiques reissue series, which unearths music from the country's golden era in the late 60s and early 70s. The group released a version of the classic "Musicawi Silt" on their album More Beautiful Than Death (Accurate) in 2000; its composer, Girma Beyene, by then living in Washington, D.C., as part of its Ethiopian expat community, heard it on the radio and contacted bandleader Russ Gershon, setting into motion an ongoing dialogue between the Either/Orchestra and a network of veteran Ethiopian musicians.

This dialogue led to a 2004 trip to Ethiopia by the Either/Orchestra, documented by the album Live in Addis, number 20 in the Ethiopiques series—a double CD, it features 13 Ethiopian classics given a jazz slant, with contributions by a raft of Ethiopian greats like saxophonist Getatchew Mekurya (who played with the band at the Jazz Fest), singer Bahta Gebre-Heywet, and composer and percussionist Mulatu Astatke, another expat who's spent many of his recent years in the States.

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.

Mulatu Astatke
  • Mulatu Astatke
Lately Astatke has made some superb recordings with an instrumental British post-hip-hop outfit called the Heliocentrics, and earlier this year he released Mulatu Steps Ahead (Strut), a stunning album that I've only recently been able to dig into. The album was cut mostly with the Either/Orchestra in Boston, with additional recordings with members of the Heliocentrics in London and traditional Ethiopian musicians in Addis Ababa. As much as I enjoy Astatke's vintage recordings, I'd say Mulatu Steps Ahead does an even better job presenting his original vision of Ethio jazz. On the early albums Astatke wasn't working with dyed-in-the-wool jazz musicians, so the performances didn't always bring the delicacy and harmonic sophistication to his compositions that the Either/Orchestra does here. Mulatu Steps Ahead is a much more somber, restrained effort that I've come to expect from the Ethiopian vets involved, and the gorgeous arrangements allow the sophistication of Astatke's writing to really shine, from the billowing ambience of "Radcliffe" to the elegant post-Mingus swing of "Ethio Blues."

The album's versions of older tunes like "Boogaloo" and "I Faram Gami I Faram" are vast improvements over the original renditions, cut in New York in the mid-60s with a less-than-stellar Latin-jazz group; such experiments in cross-stylistic fusion remain emblematic of Astatke's work, but here they achieve a fluidity, grace, and precision missing the first time. That same impulse informs a new version of "Mulatu's Mood," where the kora playing of Kadialy Kouyate adds a taste of West Africa to the soul-jazz groove. A new piece called "The Way to Nice" interpolates a melodic riff from James Bond composer John Barry, embedding it in the pentatonic tonality that makes Ethiopian music so recognizable. Below you can listen to "Green Africa," a track that features elements recorded in all three locales, with gorgeous horns, a typically lyrical and resonant vibraphone solo by Astatke, and twangy licks played on the traditional krar.

"Green Africa":

Today's playlist:

Matthew Welch, Luminosity (Porter)
Levon Helm, Electric Dirt (Vanguard)
Hyperactive Kid, 3 (Jazzwerkstatt)
The Scene Is Now, Total Jive (Lexicon Devil)
Don Cherry, Hear & Now (Atlantic/Wounded Bird)