Mulatu Astatke - New York - Addis - London: The Story of Ethio Jazz 1965-1975
Ethio jazz is the latest obscure genre to be dusted off and presented to a probably none-too-excited public by Strut Records. Credited as its founder is Ethiopian-born Mulatu Astatke. Through studying in the UK and America, he developed a style (as a vibraphone and keyboard player and also as an arranger) which blended jazz as we know it with sounds from his home country.
This collection gathers together recordings made between 1965 and 1975, many in collaboration with other Ethiopian musicians. The dominant influence varies from track to track and this shifting balance between African and western elements no doubt helps hold the interest. 'Yekermo Sew', for example, doesn’t deviate at all from classic western jazz. Heavy with snaking brass, a jazz novice (ahem!) could easily mistake it for prime Miles Davis. It’s directly followed by 'I Faram Gami I Faram', which features Ethiopian Quintet. By contrast, the focus here is on African singing and rhythm, the two pieces apparently linked solely by restrained vibraphone.
With vibraphone to the fore, 'Mascaram Setaba' - bizarrely - has a similar lounge feel to parts of the Twin Peaks soundtrack. Fans of chill out will enjoy Ene Alantchie Alnorem and its perfect partner piece, Tezeta. The former literally has a wind blowing through it, while the latter's melodies are uncommonly soothing. Yet even at its most relaxed, the music seems beautifully uncalculated, matched in places by a pleasing roughness to the recording quality. Transcending mere curiosity value, The Story of Ethio Jazz is both educational and accessible - or at least it should be to those for whom world music and jazz aren't totally off the radar.