Written by Banning Eyre from NPR
It is bold indeed for any jazz artist to evoke Miles Davis’ landmark album Sketches of Spain. But Mulatu Astatke, like Miles, is a true original.
The music Astatke first imagined 40 years ago sounds as fresh and contemporary today as it did in the swinging Addis Ababa of 1973 when Astatke created a signature “Ethio-jazz” style by blending jazz with Ethiopian music. Decades later, he earned an international following when his early recordings appeared on reissue CDs. Now, Astatke has rewarded fans with new album called Sketches of Ethiopia.
The music Astake makes is cool and complex at the same time that it is easily engaging. It has an almost narrative quality and keeps you constantly wondering what’s coming next.
Astake doesn’t just compose, arrange, and play jazz. He uses it as a tool to explore cultures, and create musical bridges between them. On the song “Azmari,” he fills out his brassy jazz ensemble with Ethiopian drums and the masinko lute, orchestrating it around a cantering, traditional rhythm.
Sketches of Ethiopia incorporates ideas and musicians from three continents and many nations, but the music still maintains a strong Ethiopian stamp. It’s never predictable and, for all the surprises, it never feels cluttered or gimmicky. That’s the mark of a master. And we’re lucky that after all these years, the father of Ethio-jazz has not lost his edge.