Mulatu Astatke may have been one of Africa’s most unheralded musicians — that is, before his songs popped up on the Broken Flowers soundtrack a few years ago. Most of those were from the now legendary Ethiopiques Volume 4, which came out in 1998. This time around he has teamed up with the Heliocentrics, the U.K. jazz funk outfit, for a release on Strut. However, Mulatu’s name, as well as the exquisite Amharic characters on the album cover, suggest more Ethio-jazz than is actually there.
“Masengo” starts the album appropriately enough: a soft jazz piano solo redolent of the style Mulatu picked up while playing with Duke Ellington in the ’70s. When pattering African percussion and krar (an Ethiopian lyre) come in, we have one foot in Addis Ababa and the other in a hazy Midtown jazz club. The traditional folk lyric is beautiful, soft, hypnotic. Then, without a warning, it’s demolished by a crunching drum beat.
Sadly for hardcore Mulatu fans, this is a formula for much of the album. The subtle touches of Mulatu’s Ethio-jazz, as well as the soft hums of his Vibraphone, are often overtaken by the Heliocentrics.
Which is not necessarily a bad thing. The Heliocentrics are tight troupe — just ask Madlib, who has sampled their drum lines, or DJ Shadow, who employed the Heliocentrics as a backing band. And with enough musicians to stuff an oversized stage, getting everyone in the group heard is an accomplishment in itself. Still, if one instrument is a little too loud on this album, it’s the drums of band leader Malcolm Catto.
The third in Strut’s Inspiration Information series pairs two unlikely players from the hazy space where jazz, Eastern and African traditional, and funk cross-pollinate. It’s an uncharted territory, where a crate digger only as serious as Madlib can forge connections. That the Heliocentrics had no conspicuous affinity for Ethio-jazz prior to this pairing seems a little dubious on paper. However, Mulatu’s sound — when it’s heard — inspires the band to fill the space over slow grooves that could go on endlessly.