When it comes to Stateside music listeners and so-called “world music,” leading a horse to water seems to be the best approach. By that rationale, director Jim Jarmusch is responsible for a sea of Ethio-jazz aficionados in the U.S. It was his 2005 film Broken Flowers that turned many Americans on to the work of composer and vibraphonist Mulatu Astatke.
Widely considered the most important figure in contemporary Ethiopian music, Mulatu Steps Ahead represents his first solo work in over two decades. Upon first listen, it’s strikingly apparent just how approachable this album is. Although this is modern jazz of the finest quality, there’s no need to put on airs for the crowd. The music remains lively and inviting throughout, fusing together elements of Western music and other sounds along the way. (The press release claims partial album influences from the Assosa tribes in northwestern Ethiopia and the Derashe people of south Ethiopia.)
It’s Astatke’s masterful arrangements that make this album such a joy to listen to. “I Faram Gami I Faram” layers traditional Middle Eastern instrumentation over a Latin groove and it proves unbeatable. “Mulatu’s Mood” adds a touch of uptempo sophistication with its hypnotic bass line and brass accompaniment while “Ethio Blues” possesses a swing that hearkens back to noir-style detective mysteries. Astatke’s “Boogaloo” nods in acknowledgement to the cool of late 1960s Blue Note releases while adding some Ethiopian twists and making the sound his own as a result.
Unquestionably polished as a bandleader and arranger, Mulatu’s latest is a great entry point for anyone unfamiliar with his body of work. With engaging grooves and flawless performances, it’s virtually impossible to hear what Astatke’s doing now and not want to dive headfirst into his previous releases.