Mulatu Astatke, Jazz Café | reviews, news & interviews
Mulatu Astatke, Jazz Café
Mulatu Astatke, Jazz Café
Thrilling, mysterious, seductive jazz from a parallel universe
Mulatu Astatke has carved out a particular niche within music. He is a one-off purveyor of what Brian Eno called “jazz from another planet”, smoky, mysterious and playful. He’s about the only artist you could describe as both transcendent and sleazy. The sleazy bit is mainly due to the colours of the horns and vibraphone, suggesting a less than salubrious nightclub, and he himself has something of the demeanour of a lounge lizard.
He studied classical music at Trinity College in London at more or less the same time as that other musical visionary, Fela Kuti ( I’d pay to watch a docudrama of those days in the dim and distant early 1960s). After than he returned to Ethiopia and played a lot of hotel clubs and forged his own style, as distinctive as Kuti’s Afro-beat.
It was Jim Jarmusch’s 2005 film Broken Flowers that made his name - that and the excellent cult album series Ethiopiques. The transcendent element is that the music jolts you out of conventional perception, wakes you up and makes you look at everything from a new angle. At a sold-out Jazz Café, Astatke peppered his set with a couple of tracks from the film which have become classics in their way: “Yekermo Sew” and “Yegelle Tezeta” were the musical cornerstones of the evening.
Like any adventurous musician, Astatke doesn't want to stay still and some the newer material worked, other numbers were more rambling and improvised, which at times lost the attention of the audience. It was as though an artist with a singular style has suddenly gone off-piste. Imagine Bridget Riley suddenly filling her next show with psychedelic watercolours mixed with her usual style. The colliding aesthetic caused some jarring of gears.
He has rounded up some first-rate musicians for his band, and the brass section of James Arben and Bryon Wallen were top-notch as was the cellist Danny Keane, even though as a unit they were not quite as tight as last year’s concert at the Southbank.
The overall effect remains of a true original at the peak of his powers, even though Astatke is approaching his seventies. If there was another pop cultural reference to be reminded of, it was the TV series Twin Peaks and you could imagine this music in a remake - slightly sinister, mysterious but wonderfully fresh and thrillingly seductive.
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