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Mulatu Astatke & The Heliocentrics - Inspiration Information, Vol. 3

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Artist: Mulatu Astatke & The Heliocentrics

Album: Inspiration Information, Vol. 3

Label: Strut

Review date: Jun. 10, 2009

Mulatu Astatke is not exactly a household name, although he is well known in East Coast jazz circles. Born in Ethiopia in 1943, he trained as a vibraphone and percussionist in Britain and the US, including a stint at Berklee College, and spent much of the late 20th century dividing his time between session work in New York and establishing Addis Ababa as a center for the unique music documented on Buda’s Ethiopiques CD series. Nevertheless, he remained a musician’s musician.

In more recent years, especially since Buda released an entire disc in their series devoted to his music, he has become better known outside the jazz world, with his music featured on the soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch’s film Broken Flowers, and he has furthered his academic pursuits by writing opera at Harvard, and collaborating on the creation of an electric krar (an Ethiopian lyre—the favored instrument of the god Apollo) at M.I.T.

Astatke’s new album collects and synthesizes his years of work in all these areas, bringing in the Heliocentrics and a few traditional Ethiopian musicians for some intense collaboration. The result is a fascinating album that is at once funky, jazzy, experimental and ethnographic. “Addis Black Widow,” for example, begins with electronic gongs and breathy flute, then brings in drums, bass, and saxophones in licks reminiscent of the sound of Tom Waits’ Frank’s Wild Years, while still retaining the overall form and feel of Ethiopian funk. The very next cut, “Mulatu,” is played in 6/8 time on the bass, guitar and percussion, but the solos by trumpet and vibes are pure jazz, late bop or early Art Ensemble of Chicago with a touch of minor color.

The band switches gears again on the very next cut, “Blue Nile,” a smooth, ostinato-driven soul ballad. Then it’s back into Ethiopian funk with “Eskela Dance,” which features the krar and electric guitar imitating each other, broken through with smooth horn lines and a solo on the saxophone that somehow bridges back into jazz.

In short, there isn’t really a sub-par cut on Inspiration Information, whether your taste leans toward the Latin Playboys (“Fire in the Zoo”), Material (“Live from the Tigre Lounge”), Don Van Vliet (“Chinese New Year”), or Astatke himself in full Ethiopian mode (“Chik Chikka,” “Dewel”). This isn’t “world music” (“music from everywhere and nowhere”) – it’s World Music: the fusion of flavors, styles, rhythms, instruments, and ideas into something new and exciting.

By Richard Miller

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