Mulatu Astatke ‘Sketches of Ethiopia’ (Jazz Village) 4/5

Seventy year old Ethio-jazz keyboard maestro Mulatu Astake first came to prominence as one of the most interesting of a fascinating collection in the Ethiopiques CD series compiled by French musicologist Francis Falceto. His music became even more widely known as a result of filmmaker Jim Jarmusch falling in love with the Ethiopiques CD and deciding to feature the music as the soundtrack to the 2005 film ‘Broken flowers’ featuring Bill Murray among the stellar cast. Fast forward to the present and Mulatu has now hooked up with a British-based collective of musicians, the Steps Ahead band, having formerly performed with the Heliocentrics. Whereas the latter had a more traditional feel, the new recording combines this classic sound with a more modern update on the Ethio-jazz style. A first single ‘Gama’ has been released and is essentially a vocal vehicle. The fun starts for fans of the lengthy instrumental pieces Astatke is famed for on the introspective and reflective hues of ‘Gambella’ which begins softly with cello accompaniment from Danny Keane, but gradually builds into a bubbling, mid-tempo percussive number with horns and lead vocals supplied by fellow Ethiopian Tesfaye and some of those trademark subtle electric piano licks from Astake himself. More traditional in its use of instrumentation is the excellent ‘Hager Fiker’ on which uniquely sounding Ethiopian instruments such as the washint and krarr can be heard. Embellishing the ensemble sound is the delightful flute of James Arben who doubles up on clarinet and saxophones on other pieces. The looser and freer sounding ‘Assosa derache’ actually has echoes of Miles’ ‘Bitches Brew’ to it with Mulatu featured on vibes. For vocal excellence, two numbers stand out. The first is the final number, ‘Surma’ with Malian diva Fatoumata Diawara on lead vocals while ‘Gumuz’ is an infectious groove that features some folk-tinged guitar with subtle hints of Afro-Beat and the vocals of Tesfaye. Mulatu Astatke will perform live on two evenings in October 8 and 9 at the Village Underground in London. Tim Stenhouse

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