“Easy Listening” can be a derogatory term. The connotations are of elevator rides, music labeled “Adult Contemporary”, and Kenny G. Teebs’ (aka Mtendere Mandowa) newest album E S T A R A isn’t easy listening, but it is one of the easiest listening experiences you’ll have this year. Mandowa’s production is tranquil and blissful while still holding a joyous energy. It can be excellent ambiance (it works fantastically as a study aid, trust me), but it can just as easily be an engrossing experience. Mandowa has carefully crafted the album so that each song appears smooth and calming while retaining an adventurous edge.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the California located producer is part of Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label. Flylo’s record label contains some seriously weird vibes, even when excluding Flylo’s own music. With weirdo producer Gaslamp Killer and soulful bass virtuoso Thundercat on the roster, Teebs has clearly taken some inspiration from his labelmates. The jangling and clanky production often dives into a more aquatic version of Flylo’s Cosmagramma, but, by and large, Teebs is forging his own path. Quite a few of these songs are under three minutes long and Teebs serves them up like delicious appetizers. “The Endless” is a brilliant intro to the album. Listening to the relaxing and mesmerizing piece is akin to slipping into a warm bath. The following track, “View Point”, goes down a more twisted avenue, with breathy synths swirling around tropical percussion. “Piano Days” plays out like a molasses covered instrumental hip-hop track, and its brother song, “Piano Months”, searches for calmer moments.
It’s not all bite sized morsels. The five minute long “SOTM” relies on chiming and twitching percussion to carry the atmospheric synth work. “Shoouss Lullaby” does, indeed, play out like a lullaby and is one of the album’s loveliest moments. The first half is meditative and unfocused before a heavy drum kit comes in and marches the song to its sleepy ending. Teebs’ smartest work here is with his guests. Each musician who features on E S T A R A has fantastic chemistry with Teebs’ watery vibes. L.A. by way of Australia, by way of South Africa, Jonti gives a beautiful vocal performance on “Holiday”. A chorus of Jontis float and sway, singing, “I’m sorry I hurt you / You hurt me too.” It’s a touching and melancholy moment among more carefree songs. Prefuse 73 is a welcome guest on “NY pt.2”. It’s great to hear some of his work after a few years of silence and he gives a slinky and moody feeling to the album’s 10th track.
The final track, “Wavxxes”, features Norwegian multi-instrumentalist Lars Hornveth. The first half of the song is composed of swinging and swaying electronics with a rubbery kick drum keeping the beat. More percussion is added until the song seems to be fading away, then comes Hornveth. His airy saxophone elegantly enters the song and gives it a second turn. Electronic sounds cocoon the song and Mandowa enters with a guitar and duets with Hornveth. It’s a lovely and warm ending to a blissed out album.