[18 June 2009]
For all the excitement they generate, collaborations between artists who are well-established on their own tend to disappoint more often than not. This is especially true in music, but it’s a burden that Ethiopian bandleader Mulatu Astatke has been able to transcend for most of his career. Astatke was a founding figure in the Ethiopian jazz scene of the early 1970s—work that has been documented on the fourth volume of Buda Musique’s Ethiopiques series—but the bulk of his achievements in the ensuing years have been made in collaboration with equally accomplished artists from cultures other than his own.
For the third installment of Strut Records’ Inspiration Information series, Astatke teams up with the London-based Heliocentrics, a band whose debut recording on Stones Throw and associations with artists like DJ Shadow and Madlib has given them some deserved credibility as adventurous musicians of the highest caliber. But not even the esteemed pedigrees of either side of this equation could prepare anyone for what Astatke and the Heliocentrics have attained together—the entire album takes the tenets of collaborative success beyond categorization in the way it blurs the lines between funk, soul, breakbeat, R&B, and Astatke’s vintage Ethiopian jazz. This is not a collection of genre exercises—just uninhibited cross-pollination by an ensemble cast whose creativity knows no bounds.
As anyone who’s heard Ethiopiques Volume 4 (or seen Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, whose soundtrack draws heavily from the same compilation) can verify, there’s something about Astatke’s concept of harmony that defies categorization—it’s exotic, to be sure, but not in the watered-down, stereotyped way that Esquivel or Martin Denny packaged so-called “exotica” to the Glenn Quagmire prototypes of the 1960s. Heliocentrics drummer Malcolm Catto conveys the essence of this quality in a promotional documentary clip on the making of the album: “That scale—the Ethiopian mode. And it sounds a bit Arabic, but it isn’t… it’s some of the most amazing music ever made, and I can say that from the heart.” Describe it as you will, Astatke’s minor-keyed harmonies drive the majority of the pieces, giving the session a funk-noir feel that has few recorded precedents.
It’s presumably obvious by now that each of the disc’s 14 tracks is a highlight in its own way, yet certain pieces demand special attention. “Masenqo” starts the album off on a deceptively pastoral note, before exploding into a ridiculously funky groove powered by Catto and his Heliocentrics rhythm partner, bassist Jake Ferguson—if Charles Mingus had lived to sit in with a live hip-hop band like the Roots, it might have sounded like this. Others like “Mulatu” stick closer to Astatke’s Ethiopian heritage, but still infuse that sound with modern touches, most notably in the form of Adrian Owusu’s stabbing guitar chords that recall John McLaughlin’s playing with Miles Davis on On the Corner.
Continuing onward through strange renderings of the I-IV-V blues progression (“Chinese New Year”) and stellar examples of Astatke’s own musicianship (see the ancient and otherworldly qualities of his piano playing on “Phantom of the Panther”), the album develops so effortlessly that even pieces that seem like little more than basic idea sketches (“Fire in the Zoo”, for example) get fleshed out into vibrant creations. And that’s what makes Inspiration Information 3 such a perfectly unpredictable album—the arrangements surprise throughout with unexpected twists in ensemble voicings or solo placements, culminating in the giddy disorientation found on the concluding track, “Anglo Ethio Suite”. A suite more in length than compositional make-up, it becomes a droning, string-heavy black hole that sucks in all that which has preceded it, leaving only the silence of space—and heads shaking in disbelief—in its wake.