Words by Mark Sampson
What’s in a name? Well, the album’s two longest tracks, ‘Assosa Derache’ and ‘Motherland Abay’, both composed, arranged and produced by the ‘father of Ethio-jazz’, consciously echo Sketches of Spain, arguably Miles Davis’ finest collaboration with orchestrator Gil Evans. But there’s more to it than that. Recorded with his current Step Ahead band in London, Paris and Addis Ababa, Sketches of Ethiopia reflects the rich, cultural diversity not only of Astatke’s native country, but also of his own musical résumé. The opener, ‘Azmari’, sounds like an updated throwback to the golden-age Ethiopiques era. The concluding ‘Surma’, with Mali’s rising superstar Fatoumata Diawara on vocals, could have graced something like Baaba Maal’s classic Firin’ in Fouta album.
The singer known simply as Tesfaye adds stirring vocals to ‘Gamo’, ‘Gambella’ and the stunning electro-traditional ‘Gumuz’, while the mesmerising interplay of Astatke’s vibes with kora, flute, cello and Byron Wallen’s consistently fine trumpet all add up to an intoxicating brew. It’s ultimately perhaps more ‘Afro’ and less ‘jazz’ than Mulatu Steps Ahead, his previous album. His latest triumph confirms that there are few more innovative and distinctive voices in both modern jazz and world music.
TRACK TO TRY: ‘Gumuz’