Mulatu Astatke & the Heliocentrics: “Inspiration Information”
Strut Records’ Inspiration, Information series was conceived as an exercise in collaboration, though, for its first two installments, it essentially sank into hero-worship– but then, isn’t that usually how these multi-generational collaborations turn out? On paper, the project is meant to bring together one veteran artist with a younger, kindred spirit, and in that regard it’s succeeded, but while the series is designed to give each participant a chance to shine, the first two volumes have left no question as to who is the mentor and who is the apprentice. It only makes sense, then, that for the third and hands-down the finest entry in the series yet, the Strut powers-that-be would enlist Mulatu Astatke– an artist whose long-standing interest in musical community and truly collaborative spirit show just how inspired this type of recording can be when the musicians are well-matched.
If you’re unfamiliar with Astatke’s music, then apparently you’ve never seen Jim Jarmusch’s film Broken Flowers; the director made prominent use of Astatke’s music and gave the musician just the platform he needed to begin expanding his presence in the minds and record collections of Western jazzbos and world music buffs. The movie wasn’t exactly Garden State, and Astatke isn’t exactly the Shins, but as far as Ethiopian jazz pioneers are concerned, it was still a pretty big break.
Now, the legendary composer– who began recording in the 1960s– is sympathetically paired with the UK-based collective the Heliocentrics, and what transpires between the two parties can only be called chemistry. Give much of the credit to Astatke, who practically invented the form known as Ethiopian jazz and who has spent much of his life trying to nurture an artistic community therein; though all of the album’s fourteen tracks were written by him, he treats the Helios not as his pupils but his equals, and the sound of the album is as much theirs as his. For their part, the Heliocentrics are faithful enough to Astatke’s compositions, some of which are classics though most of which are brand new. They don’t try too hard to place their own stamp on this music, but rather find themselves in the grooves, and what results is something that lives up to the album title– real inspiration.
It’s a vibrant and hypnotic assortment of sounds and styles, by turns very Eastern and very Western, tastefully retro but also very forward-thinking, jazzy without being too esoteric and funky without sacrificing the music’s depth and sophistication. Astatke borrows many of his melodies and rhythms from traditional Ethiopian folk music, which grounds it all in a particular tradition, but he also reveals a keen interest in Western modalism, as well as a distinctly spiritual sensibility that no doubt rubbed off on him from his late friends and collaborators John and Alice Coltrane. The Heliocentrics, on the other hand, bring all the musical signifiers of psychadelia, rock, James Brown funk, and film noir soundtrack music. Some of their beats come clearly out of funk, while others sound borrowed from contemporary hip-hop. Astatke doesn’t call attention to himself as a performer, but works himself into the fabric of the music– he does get in a couple of terrific solos on the vibes, and his hand percussion on some of the later tracks reveals an idiosyncratic sense of rhythm– and everything the Heliocentrics do is in service of the songs.
Which is all just a round-about way of saying that this is true collaboration, and it’s thrilling. These musicians share similar interests but also come from very different backgrounds, but when they meet here they not only find common ground, but push each other to explore and stretch creatively. To boot: The music flat-out kicks. It’s a wonderful collection that spans decades and continents, but finds its voice in pure, unified creativity.