Getatchew Mekuria, The Ex & Friends - Y'Anbessaw Tezeta [Terp Records - 2013]"Y'Anbessaw Tezeta" is a double album of truly unique and fascinating jazz by Ethiopian saxophonist Getachew Mekuria, his band The Ex, and other accompanying ensembles. The first disk contains new studio material, largely instrumental, recorded within the last two years, while the second features live performances with various ensembles. This release comes in either Vinyl or CD format, I'm reviewing the CD version
Before listening to this, my only real exposure to African jazz has been Fela Kuti, which is quite different from this. While both like to keep a consistent, hypnotic rhythm using a drumset, Fela was largely concerned with political messages and cathartic emotional build ups, which are absent from Getachew's music. Instead, Mekuria is completely honed in on the cosmic facets of beautiful haunting tonalities sourced from traditional Ethiopian scales, expressed in a near constant soloing lament.
His playing is incredibly textured and soulful, and I never tire of hearing him, though there are few moments in the music when he is silent. There's a certain lightness and buoyancy to everything he plays, he is always moving from one note to another in complex melismas.
Many of the song titles are simply the names of Ethiopian scales ("Ambassel", etc.), resulting sometimes in multiple tracks with the same title that are in fact different improvisations based on the same scale. To my ears these scales sound similar to Gamelan music or Indian ragas, and have the same mournful mystery of each. Their combination with jazz is simply entrancing.
I can indeed hear how some of the 'head' melodies have the circular simplicity of folk melodies. As with the greatest classical composers, these melodies flower forth into multifaceted gems in the hands of Mekuria, who seems to see them from every angle. According to the detailed and helpful liner notes, which include interviews with Getachew and the various ensembles he played with, he was the first to play traditional Ethiopian music on the saxophone.
The songs strut along with a restrained energy level in a sort of regal syncopated marching band rhythm. Seeming to prefer a contemplative style of music, Mekuria never drives the music to a climax or any kind of feeling of desperation. The closest thing we get to real darkness is the angular, dissonant space funk of the 7th track, "Aha Gedawo", which brings to mind Sun Ra in his "Lanquidity" phase. A lightly distorted electric guitar notably accompanies the band through all of CD1 with some post rock-ish chords, which lends the album an anachronistic, modern sound.
Just as one manages to begin to process the restrained instrumental sound of the first disk, the second manages to be all the more mesmerizing with raw emotionality and diversity. "Yene Hasab Gwadegna", a performance with the ICP orchestra, features a crystalline piano and weeping violin among other strings. It may be my favorite track on the entire set. The version of "Aha Gedawo" included here notably includes some very tasty distortion sounds.
In conclusion, this double disk set is some massive brain food, and really eludes description. Every piece included here is filled with a kind of melody most listeners have likely never encountered, and it's really quite accessible, with nothing too ugly or unwelcoming about it. This dreamlike, existential jazz functions perfectly on all intellectual and emotional levels, and works both for background and focused listening. Highly recommend for some brain expansion.Josh Landry