Mulatu Astatke: “Mulatu Steps Ahead”

The title of Mulatu Steps Ahead is something of a paradox: In meaning, it suggests a forward momentum, a creative leap in a new direction, but in form, it’s not forward-thinking so much as it’s deliberately retro-gazing, a throwback reference to classic Columbia and Blue Note jazz titles, specifically Miles Ahead. And so it is with the music: This is Ethiopian jazz legend Astatke following his muse into unexpected new places, even as he combs the past for signposts to guide him. Given that the man essentially created an entire genre of music– Ethio-jazz– the thought of him looking backward might seem initially disappointing– why would a long-time pioneer suddenly be content to take the road more traveled?– but in reality, Mulatu’s doing what he’s always done; his music has always drawn heavily from traditional Ethiopian forms and melodies, even as he twists them to suit his own purposes, which is basically what he does here. The difference– the thing that makes this record a “step ahead”– is that here, the Ethiopian master engages American jazz tropes more directly than he ever has before; it’s no small irony, then, that this happens to rank among his more exotic and otherworldly studio creations.

Astatke hasn’t released an album of new material in some time; instead, he’s been challenging himself with exciting new collaborations (such as his session with the Heliocentrics last year) and storing up thrilling new compositions, many of which appear here, along with a few new workings of older Mulatu tunes. The album opener, “Radcliffe,” introduces the album’s basic conceit: It begins as a cloud of dissonance, coming from Ethiopian flutes and bowed violins, before the warm sound of a trumpet– yes, with striking tonal similarities to Miles Davis– bring focus to the piece. It’s the sound of two worlds colliding, and its slowly-unfurled, dreamlike pace make it sound like some hallucinatory meditation. The other side of the coin comes in the form of “The Way to Nice,” a spry groove that recalls both the composer’s 007-ish riffs from the Broken Flowers soundtrack as well as his album with the Heliocentrics, some of whom appear here.

Everything here feels like the work of a musician who’s simply interested in letting his imagination play– and who’s pioneering work has earned him the right to do so, as well as the understanding to make it more than just an act of artistic self-indulgence. The composer’s touch is light, with differing cultural and musical idioms– be it a distinctly African brand of funk or a particularly American horn line, songs that swing or songs that unfold patiently– caressing each other rather than butt heads. It’s an album of nocturnal grooves, big-band reveries for the midnight hour, a seductive set of songs that’s endlessly inventive and profoundly sympathetic toward its various sources of inspiration. In other words: It’s Mulatu stepping ahead, once again, and this time he’s on firmer footing than ever before.

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