Had American filmmaker Jim Jarmusch not included a handful of vintage ‘Ethiopiques’ cuts on the soundtrack to quirky deadpan comedy ‘Broken Flowers’, Mulatu Astatke could still reside the deepest recesses of obscurity. A quick spin to the latest instalment in Strut’s ‘Inspiration Information’ series – in which veteran musical dynamos team up with bands they’ve inspired for album-length studio sessions - shows what a loss and downright injustice that’d have been.
Mysterious, slow-burning and based on distinctive Ethiopian scales, Astatke’s already invented a wholly original sound once. The 65-year old Ethiopian bandleader and composer, however, proves admirably reluctant to cash in on past glories on this studio “comeback” after series of concerts following the recent discovery of his late 60’s and 70’s Ethio-jazz masterworks. Astatke and celebrated UK-based grooves-for-hire merchants the Heliocentrics bring equal chunks of ideas, sounds and reference points to the party, resulting in fresh, genre-dodging music that practically oozes with the joyously messy spirit of innovation and experimentation, simultaneously respectfully aware of tradition and uncompromisingly up-to-date, intent on ignoring the rulebook.
A few tracks – most notably the smoky, brass-powered powerhouse ‘Cha Cha‘ – inch close to the haunting African groove-jazz territory Mulatu first mapped out in the late 60’s. These comfortingly familiar moments are what first stand out from the dizzyingly diverse whole, assembled during a hectic week-long writing and recording session last September. Ranging from fairly straightforward, ‘Ethiopiques’-friendly soundscaping (‘Blue Nile’) to Sun Ra-touched spots of horns-squealing cacophony (‘Esketa Dance’), tense car-chase scene clatter (‘Addis Black Widow’), even steamily cerebral Can-stranded-on-desert inner space funk (‘Live from Tigre Lounge’), the album might at first seem to lack a cohesive sound, with Mulatu placing his instantly recognisable piano and vibes in contexts that don’t seem to belong to the same musical universe. Allow ‘Inspiration Information’ a while to brew, though, and it’s these bolder cross-genre experiments that really dazzle.
Equal parts soothing easy listening and spiky abstraction – not unlike Mulatu’s ‘Ethiopiques’ classics – with not a whiff of pointless pastiche, jazz-funk horror or clinical nu-funk neutrality, ‘Inspiration Information’ is collaboration at its finest: a generous 14-track serving that throbs with the excitement of risk-taking, boundaries being pushed and comfort zones left behind, without ever losing sight of the killer grooves both Astatke’s and the Heliocentrics’ reps are built on.