According to guitarist Terrie Hessels of venerable Dutch art-punk band the Ex, Ethiopian saxophonist Getatchew Mekuria died yesterday at age 81, following several years of poor health. Mekuria began playing professionally in 1949, and though he was most active before the 80s, he enjoyed a heartening late-career renaissance—he collaborated with the Ex, making two fantastic albums that complemented his muscular, vibrato-rich tone with wiry, chattering guitars, and with Boston jazz group Either/Orchestra.
Like many curious listeners, I first heard Mekuria when the essential Ethiopiques series (produced by Francis Falceto for French label Buda Musique) issued a CD called Negus of Ethiopian Sax, a knockout collection of recordings spotlighting his playing. (It was originally released in 1972, during the country's golden era of modern music.) With the fall of Haile Selassie in 1974, Ethiopia's state-sponsored music scene began to collapse, and Mekuria worked largely as a music instructor, though he continued to play low-key gigs in Addis Ababa. A few years into the current century, Either/Orchestra and then the Ex sought him out for fruitful collaborations. The albums he cut with the Ex—unlikely partners for him on the surface—elevated his reputation, in part because their high-energy backdrop functioned like a blank canvas on which his sashaying lines could make their full, lyrical impact.
The second of those two albums, Y'Anbessaw Tezeta (Terp), came out in 2012, and aside from Negus, it captures the essence of Mekuria's playing as well as anything he ever made. On that recording, the Ex expanded to include a top-notch horn section of great improvisers, among them Chicago's own Ken Vandermark, French clarinetist Xavier Charles, and Dutch trombonists Joost Buis and Wolter Wierbos—but the stage belonged to the Mekuria. As you can hear below, he rips it up on a stuttering version of a traditional Ethiopian warrior song called "Aha Gedawo." Below that, you can check out a vintage 1972 track called "Almaz Yèharèrwa."