Mulatu Astatke has become increasingly well-known outside his native Ethiopia during the last decade. His “Ethio-jazz” provided the focus for Volume 4 of Buda Musique’s now-legendary Ethiopiques series in 1998 and, more recently, for a retrospective compilation (New York - Addis - London) and a brand new collaborative album (Inspiration Information), both on Strut. In between, his music was disseminated to a new audience via its inclusion on Jim Jarmusch’s film Broken Flowers. As the title of the Strut compilation made clear, however, Astatke has enjoyed a lengthy international career; as a teenager and young man he trained in Wales, London, New York, and Boston, and has frequently collaborated with musicians from outside East Africa. Inspiration Information was a fascinating collaboration with UK jazz group the Heliocentrics that showcased the collaborators’ respective strengths while creating something quite new.
Mulatu Steps Ahead continues the spirit of collaborative exploration, in a slightly more muted but no less thrilling manner. Astatke works here with members of Boston’s Either/Orchestra, with whom he has worked since 2004, and there are also contributions from the Heliocentrics, other UK-based jazz and world musicians, and musicians from Addis Ababa.
If there are fewer sparks flying off the proceedings than on the 2009 album, there is much beauty to be found, not least in the frequent use of yearning trumpet sounded over quietly dissonant backdrops. This quiet majesty is apparent on album-opener “Radcliffe”. The “Eastern” sonorities here bring to mind exploratory western jazz such as that of John and Alice Coltrane (Astatke knew both musicians and collaborated with Alice on some sadly lost recordings), also those moments in Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain where the trumpeter seems to be wandering forlorn through the Andalusian soundscape. It’s perhaps an obvious reference, but the ghost of Miles haunts many of the tracks here, with their melding of questing brass and modal jazz settings. At the same time, there are more of the traditional sounds of Africa here than can generally be found in Davis’s work.
References to American jazz figures such as Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra (from whom the Heliocentrics take their name), and McCoy Tyner (particularly his \“African\” albums from the early 1970s) are tempting but must be balanced with a reminder that Astatke was a key contributor to this particular sound during the same era. To listen to a track like the remarkable “Green Africa” is to be reminded of this contribution. As the piece works the bandleader\‘s sensuous vibraphone against the sizzling dissonance of the stringed instruments (including the krar, a lyre played in Ethiopia and Eritrea), we are made aware again of Astatke’s great sense of musical balance. What is fascinating in all these artists’ work is the meeting of traditions, as jazz takes from and contributes to the varied worlds of African vernacular and classical practices.
Strings are used to sublime effect again on “The Way to Nice”, a track Astatke composed while touring with the Heliocentrics, some of whom contribute. It’s a number that breathes easily, allowing a sense of space to open out gradually. Conceived as a reflection on a journey, it becomes its own trip, by turns digressing from the path and promising return.
More internationalism is on show for “I Faram Gami I Faram”, a reworking of an old Astatke tune that was included on New York - Addis - London. The heavy Latin influence that defined that version is retained here, though the track is extended and a new vocal added. With a basic track recorded by Astatke and the Either/Orchestra in the US, timables and guiro added by the bandleader and Heliocentrics percussionist Jack Yglesias in London, and an Ethiopian vocal recorded in Addis Ababa, the track is both an example of the studio as a compositional tool and a refection of the places Astatke has called home during his long career.
“Mulatu’s Mood” is another reworked track. The version recorded in the 1990s was essentially a saxophone narrative set atop an arrangement that highlighted chunky electric bass and synthesizer, with occasional interjections from Astatke’s celestial vibes. The new version levels the playing field, toning down the horn and bass and making space for more complex percussion. The vibraphone is a more constant presence and Byron Wallen’s trumpet makes a vital but non-dominating contribution; the real treasure, however, is the addition of kora, which lends the track a lustrous sheen and relocates it from the placeless place of studio-based session jazz which the original, retroactively, seems to occupy.
“Ethio Blues” brings piano and washint (an end-blown flute) to the fore and achieves the fusion its title suggests with great success. Again, there are echoes of McCoy Tyner’s early 1970s work—Sahara, for example—though Tyner was, of course, echoing what he found in Africa and the East.
“Booglaoo” is another reworked piece which, like “Mulatu’s Mood”, brings on its most distinguishing feature—masenqo, a single-stringed fiddle—halfway through for a tantalizing glimpse into the Ethiopian side of Astake’s jazz. “Motherland” brings the CD version of the album to a stately close with its serene vibraphone, aching trumpet, and elastic acoustic bass (the digital edition of the album contains an extra track, “Derashe”, based on traditional scales from Southern Ethiopia). It\‘s a reflective close to a reflective album, one that sees Mulatu Astatke confidently doing what he does best: providing inventive arrangements, bringing the best out of his collaborators, offering glimpses of the unfamiliar amidst familiar materials, and capturing experience with quiet majesty.