Thursday, January 3, 2013

CD of the Year: Samuel Yirga - Guzo

Otherworldly jazz from young Ethiopian pianist with dizzying potential
''The immediate flavour is Ethiopian, with those five-note scales that makes such music, as Brian Eno put it, sound like 'jazz from another planet''
This is both a bang up-to-the-minute album, but also a throwback to the glory days of Ethiopian jazz in the late 1960s and 1970s - an era excavated with loving care over the last 15 years by Francis Falceto’s Éthiopiques series (now up to 27 releases). That series created enormous interest in Europe and the States, reviving the careers of some its leading proponents like Mulatu Astatke and Mahmoud Ahmed, and in recent years has resulted in some fabulous new music from the likes of The Heliocentrics, Imperial Tiger Orchestra, The Ex and Dub Colossus, in whose ranks pianist Samuel Yirga could be found.
This disc is resolutely old fashioned in its adherence to the form and structure of an album, a proper long playing record which has a musical narrative and arc. Yirga was often buried in the mix in Dub Colossus, so his expressive playing here is a revelation. The most immediate flavour is Ethiopian, with those characteristic five-note scales that make such music, as Brian Eno memorably put it, sound like “jazz from another planet.”
But there’s plenty of room for more lateral influences, from the Latin tumbaos of “My Head”, the Morcheeba-like “African Diaspora” (featuring Nicolette from Massive Attack) or more contemplative pieces like the Abdullah Ibrahim flavoured “Drop Me There” or the spare piano work of “Dance With The Legend”, which illustrates Yirga’s classical training. An unexpected oddity is the space-hippy classic “I Am the Black Gold of the Sun” with guests the Creole Choir Of Cuba. Like fellow musiciansTigran from Armenia or Roberto Fonseca from Cuba, Yirga uses local colours to inject new flavours into the art of jazz piano.
Guzo was beautifully recorded in Addis and the Real World studio near Bath and sensitively produced by Nick Page (Aka Dubulah from Dub Colossus), and the balance of instrumentation between brass, percussion and piano is a thing of wonder. Yirga, born in Addis, had a struggle to get where he is (he only started playing piano at 16) but he has grasped this opportunity with open arms and scored a winner. He is still in his twenties, this is his first solo album, and as Page put it: “His world is opening up.” This isn’t, you feel, quite the finished article just yet, and there are times when he is too obviously channelling the likes of his heroes Keith Jarrett or Herbie Hancock, but the potential is dizzying and his joy in playing transmits wonderfully to the listener.
Watch Samuel Yirga playing solo piano