Astatke ‘Steps Ahead,’ steps his game up

Artist- Mulatu Astatke

Album- Mulatu Steps Ahead

Record Label- Strut

4 out 5 Pitchforks

Returning to the studio for the first time in two decades with the March 29 release “Mulatu Steps Ahead,” Ethiopia’s jazz king Mulatu Astatke comes back with a new style that feels wilder and more loose than anything he has done before.

Now more relaxed, Astatke sounds as if his acutely original style was only one period in the evolution of his jazz form.

The first track, “Radcliffe,” is dreamy and flowing, cluttered and improvisational. Almost like the orchestra tuning, it seems more like jazz play than one of Astatke’s classic jazz pieces.

The track begins to take form as a crooning, smoky song that would make fitting background music for an opium den.

“Green Africa” paints a mental image of green Serengeti and lively Africa. A smooth culmination from the preceding track, the song ends in Astatke jiving on the vibraphone.

By “The Way to Nice,” the album has transformed into a swinging, Latin beat, reminiscent of the “James Bond” theme, close to his older style but somehow still more free in structure.

Next is “Assosa,” a modernized tribute to the traditional music of the Assosa tribes of Ethiopia. A bit hypnotizing, it seems to linger on for ages.

“I Faram Gami I Faram” is so intensely Caribbean inspired, it is a bit surprising when the vocals come in what can only be assumed Amharic. The epitome of sultry Latin jazz, this song tugs some part of the listener and tells them to dance.

“Umlaut’s Mood” has almost hip-hop like drums and the tinkling guitar behind a brooding saxophone that plays with the other horns like a brass practice session.

On “Ethio Blues,” Astatke sounds classically jazzy with light high-hat drums, slow plucked bass and light piano. Where it stands out is Astatke’s very own soloing on the vibraphone.

“Boogaloo” is another jam founded in Puerto Rican jazz. The only difference: the occasional Middle Eastern instrument to remind the listener that this is no ordinary jazz maestro.

On “Motherland,” the band explores some dreamscape that seems caught in a noir film. Dark and mysterious, it sounds like a seductress’ theme.

The bonus digital track “Derashe” is an ominous drug-induced trip that plays with the traditional scales of the Derashe tribe.

After a long hiatus, Astatke does not disappoint with his new and improved style of composing. Although taking a step away from his traditional, more structured type of jazz, his new direction is more complex, modern and easier to relate to as jazz to an audience that may not have enjoyed his more heavily Ethio-influenced sound.

It’s truly a joy to see an artist so practiced in his craft totally capable of reinventing his sound at an age — Astatke is in his late 60s — where most peers are resigned to playing the old hits.

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