Mulatu Astatke And The Heliocentrics: Epic + Masenqo

From Inspiration Information Vol. 3 (K7/Strut, 2009)

Aside from my Beatles kick I’ve been on lately as I am eagerly anticipating the recently announced remastered reissues, I’ve been a bit of a jazz head lately with the recently reviewed P.E. Hewitt Jazz Ensemble and now this Ethio-jazz album from the renowned Mulatu Astatke and his new-found friends in the Heliocentrics.

Astatke, a vibraphonist and pianist, who has worked and performed with the likes of Duke Ellington and Phil Ranelin, met up with the Heliocentrics early last year. The groups hit it off so well that they decided to record a full album.

Inspiration Information Vol. 3 follows in the line of releases from Strut that pairs up current artists/producers with their musical influences from a variety of backgrounds – kind of like the Red Hot + series from the last decade. The album is nearly entirely instrumental – allowing the arrangements to do the talking. One stunning example is “An Epic Story.” It has a haunting riff to it and feels almost operatic (not at all surprising since Astatke has been working on one) with its dark undertone and wide assortment of instruments featuring a nice, understated harp.

It wouldn’t be a Heliocentrics release without some semblance of funky psychedelia. “Addis Black Widow” is a rollicking tune that makes you feel like you’re trying to tame the lions on a jungle safari… or maybe they’re trying to tame you? Elsewhere “Masenqo” features one of the few spots where you hear singing on the album. With its many moods, it goes from jazz-piano beginning to featuring the title instrument, an Ethiopian single-string violin… and then the drums thud their way in. The vocals are just dying to have Timbaland sample them for an off-kilter beat that he’s known for.

Bottom line: if you dig the Heliocentrics, you’ll enjoy this release as well. If you’ve never heard a Heliocentrics-featured album, this is as good of a place as any to start. Mulatu and friends do not disappoint here.