Mulatu Astatke, legendary vibes player and pioneer of Ethio-jazz in the 60s and early 70s has teamed up with Melbourne based Black Jesus Experience to create an eclectic array of transcontinental fusions in a second musical collaboration following Cradle Of Humanity in 2016.
Black Jesus Experience or BJX are a diverse nine-piece band, not only from the perspective of the band members heritage, Moroccan, Maori, Zimbabwean, Ethiopian but in their age range as well, from veteran pianist Bob Sedergreen to percussionist Kahan Harper who toured with Astatke from just 12 years of age.
‘Mulatu’ the album’s first track is a reworking of an early classic tune by Mulatu Astatke. The gently hypnotic vibraphone groove of the original is retained as a sound layer in a more contemporary setting but with phrases and echoes of the earlier variation. The piece is driven forward with the precision of Ian Dixon’s trumpet and velocity of James Davies’ rhythm section. At around four and a half minutes the band up the ante and MC Mr Monk interjects with some lyrical laments regarding the state of Aboriginal land rights in Australia right now, ‘survivors of genocide and displacement in this modern-day playpen’ as well as stating his intention to whet our appetite with some ‘Ethiop-flavour’.
I found it satisfying to compare this version of ‘Mulatu’ with his 2009 collaboration on the same tune with London based Heliocentrics, to my ear that version sounds somehow darker and more contained, the groove fitting around it more closely. The Northern hemisphere version contrasting with the brighter more expansive sounding Southern hemisphere take on the theme.
Astatke’s vibes are not prominently featured on the album and after the first tune really only come to the fore towards the close of the record. ‘Blue Light’ a lower key more serene piece with a beautiful trumpet part by Ian Dixon. ‘A Chance To Give’ is a great example of the band weaving their stylistic threads together with a delicate guitar melody from Zac Lister which achieves a simultaneously modern and nostalgic feel that Mulatu’s sinuous vibes occupy like a dream.
As well as Mulatu Astatke the other Ethiopian voice on the record is that of Enushu Taye whose interpretations of Ethiopian wedding songs bring a distinctive sense of place to the music. There’s jazz here and there’s Ethio-jazz here but then there is this other realm altogether that her voice occupies. Somehow the band absorb these diverse influences and rework them to give us something new and vital.
Mulatu Astatke ‘Mulatu of Ethiopia’ LP/CD (Strut) 5/5
Mulatu Astatke ‘Sketches of Ethiopia’ LP/CD (Jazz Village) 4/5
Mulatu Astatke ‘Mulatu Steps Ahead’ 2LP/CD (Strut) 4/5
Mulatu Astatke and the Heliocentrics ‘Inspiration Information’ LP/CD (Strut) 4/5