Mulatu Astatke ‘Mulatu Steps Ahead’ 2LP/CD (Strut) 4/5

This the much anticipated follow up to Mulatu’s album with the Heliocentrics, this time recorded in Addis Adaba, Boston and London, and it does not disappoint. Throughout there is an effortless feel and the original 1960s and 1970s atmosphere of his original classic albums is rekindled without it being in any way contrived. The music is inspired by Astatke’s travels, taking in residencies at Harvard University where he taught and even recent tours to France. The latter is alluded to in the mid-tempo groover that is ‘The way to Nice’, featuring a muted Harmon solo, while for the former ‘Radcliffe’ has a distinctive late-night set at the Village Vanguard feel with jazzy vibes helping to create a moody and reflective ambience. A lovely laid back jazz groove is conjured up on ‘Ethio blues’ which betrays a homage to Duke Ellington in the use of horns and to Milt Jackson and the Modern Jazz Quartet in the use of vibraphone. In a more uptempo vein are two reworkings of his earlier repertoire, namely the Latin-soul flavoured ‘Boogaloo’, which in style is reminiscent of both Mongo Santamaria’s ‘Watermelon Man’ and Eddie Harris’ ‘Cold duck time’, and the heavy percussion workout number that is ‘I faram gami I faram’. This features a delightful Latin jazz piano vamp with wailing chanting and could just as easily be something that the Latin Jazz Sextet conjured up, with salsa-Esque horns and haunting jazz-inflected vibes making this a clear album highlight. Modal piano hues in a larger setting that McCoy Tyner might be familiar with are demonstrated further on the big band Latino of ‘Green Africa’ which echoes ‘Afro Blue’ in its form with an Ethiopian string instrument adding a touch of authenticity to proceedings. One minor gripe with this otherwise excellent release; the voice of Mulatu Astatke presenting the album on every single track does begin to grate by the end. This aside, ‘Mulatu steps ahead’ is a terrific example of Ethio-jazz with Mulatu Astatke’s sound as contemporary as ever.

Tim Stenhouse