Saturday, January 23, 2010

The top 10 albums of 2009: No. 8

Mulatu Astatke

and the Heliocentrics

Inspiration Information, Vol. 3

Contrary to what you might expect from the title, this is the first album made by Mulatu Astatke and the Heliocentrics. Together, that is. He's an Ethiopian jazz master, and they're a young U.K. band with worldly tastes (which is to say that their talents encompass instruments beyond the standard, Anglo-centric array of guitar, bass, drums, piano and keyboard). Their pairing was facilitated by the Strut record label of London for its Inspiration Information series, an influential-veteran-meets-hotshot-newcomer arrangement.

The two have chemistry, for sure. Ghostly Moog whines in "Dewel" give way to a chorus of horns, the sax, trumpet and trombone pattering in common conversation. Waiting in the bass groove, Astatke emerges with twinkles of vibraphone. Then the horns chatter anew.

The bulk of the songs were composed by Heliocentrics members, who number Malcolm Catto (drums), Jake Ferguson (bass), Oliver Parfitt (keys and synths), Adrian Owusu (guitar), Jack Yglesias (flute and percussion), Tom Hodges (theremin and saw), Dan Keane (cello), Kat Arney (harp), James Arben (clarinet and sax), Shabaka Hutchings (tenor sax) and James Allsop (bass clarinet). It's a full house.

Mulatu Astatke (piano, percussion) seems more mentor than bandleader here, although the tracks are bent toward traditional Ethiopian arrangements rather than new age eclecticism. Some guest players bring in washint, krar, begena and masenqo, instruments little-heard in Western music. Dawit Gebreab plays washint on "An Epic Story," the flute tones offset against a synth wind. It would seem befit for a warrior, one surveying his future kingdom from atop a bluff, perhaps at the cusp of daybreak.

The players save the best for last, though. "Anglo Ethio Suite" unfolds with suspense, a deliberately paced composition with a solemn and recurring cello theme. Malcolm Catto's kit skittering opens the piece, and Kat Arney dusts the scene with harp before Jake Ferguson's combo of bass and begena establishes the hypnotic groove. Astatke, at the piano, darts out, then retreats. Dan Keane's thin, high strings squeak out, and from there the track narrows in on cello and flute, as if the two are trapped in the face of impending tumult. The strings worry and scurry, then scrabble feverishly. A clarinet squeals. The end is near. Literally.


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