Sunday, 6 December 2009

Inspirational Ethio-Jazz Fusion

I’d never heard of ‘Ethio-Jazz’ until this morning. Indo-Jazz, yes, thanks to Joe Harriott and John Mayor, and Cuban Jazz, of course...but Ethio-Jazz?
Well, I’ve eaten Ethiopian food a few times at Lalibela, Tufnell Park, and now I’m consuming music by Mulatu Astatke courtesy of Strut’s compilation, ‘New York - Addis - London - The Story Of Ethio Jazz 1965-1975’. Damn good it is too. I mean really damn good, being one of those surprises you come across now and again, even after listening to music seriously for nearly forty years, as I have.
Perhaps I’ve been slow on the uptake, but this comp really does feel like it shines a light on previously buried treasures, although Astatke may have long been a wet dream for crate-diggers of obscure grooves for all I know.
Now we can all sample the delights of this hybrid music which overall forms a kind of leftfield Latin-Funk-Afro-Jazz mélange of vocal and instrumental tunes. At times it reminds me of Salah Ragab’s Egyptian Jazz (‘Emnete) and Cal Tjader (‘Girl From Addis Ababa’), but the arrangements and solos are often distinctive enough to create something other than mere genre pieces. ‘Dewel’ moves to a mildly funky rhythm but the tenor sax is in ‘free’ mode, whilst ‘Netsanet’ has a ‘Shaft In Africa’ feel (great Acid guitar solo). ‘Yegella Tezeta’ is just downright odd, in a good way, with funky break and muted organ solo.
Astatke appears again with The Heliocentrics on the third of the ‘Inspiration Information’ series. This is probably my Album of the Year. There aren’t many contenders, but if there were hundreds, this would still take some beating.
The London-based Heliocentrics have worked some post-session magic in the studio, giving it a crisp sound for that updated Sun Ra-in-groove-mode that inspires much of their work. London-based Ethiopian musicians also contribute.
In light of listening to the Astatke comp, this sounds like the perfect modernisation of his styles from that period. Jazz, Breakbeats, Afro rhythms, chants, acid guitar, free soloing, it’s all in here along with much more.
I’m reluctant to pick tracks although ‘Live From The Tigre Lounge’, ‘Addis Black Widow’ and ‘Fire In The Zoo’ do leap out, but then there’s ‘Chinese New Year’ and the lengthiest cut, ‘Anglo Ethio Suite’.
All concerned have contributed to a masterpiece of fusion here, pulled together by The Heliocentrics in a fashion that’s shot through with contemporary edge whilst truly acknowledging past masters of so-called ‘spiritual’ jazz and progressive fusion.

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