Mulatu Astatke - Mulatu Steps Ahead
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Mulatu Astatke
Mulatu Steps Ahead
Strut ( www.strut-records.com)

Mulatu Astatke has a magical way of making something big come across as intimate. For this recording, vibraphonist Astatke arranged his own compositions for groups of musicians from Ethiopia along with members of The Heliocentrics and The Either/Orchestra. Credits in the liner notes list anywhere from 7 to 18 individual musicians on each track. There are a lot of people on this record, yet it feels like it could be re-created with a few musicians in a living room. The credit for this has to go Astake's skill as a composer, arranger, and bandleader. He has created tight, precise arrangements that envelop the listener without ever being overpowering.

The use of traditional Ethiopian instruments and musicians works well with the sensibilities of the jazz musicians from London and Boston. Krar and begena blend effortlessly with brass and bass clarinet. In fact, the record starts with a duet of the washint and masenqo which is mixed slowly with piano snippets, fleeting vibraphone lines, exotic percussion, and muted trumpet, all working together to produce an ethereal sound. Yet no chaos ensues, no muddiness appears. Each player, each voice, moves in and out of the mix at exactly the right time.

After the swirling ambiance of the first track, the groove kicks in and stays for the rest of the record. Grooves change from song to song, but there is always the groove. Percussion is used effectively without being overdone. The groove embraces the listener, and the listener embraces the groove.

It's impressive how Astatke makes a large ensemble feel so personal, as if introducing the listener to a close-knit group of longtime friends who are eager to share the old stories. If he ever offers to bring the whole flock to my living room, I'll expend the extra effort to scrounge up 18 chairs. - Greg Harness

Here's an interesting interview with the artist where he explains the music:

CD available from cdRoots

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