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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.
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)