It is surely no coincidence that the Ishtar family of labels tagline "Modern Sounds from Italy"is based in Milan, that most stylish and go-ahead of Italian cities. New imprint Space Echo's launch release is The Invisible Session's sophomore album, Echoes Of Africa, and it slots right into Ishtar's sophisticated aesthetic, which exists at the intersection of jazz, funk, lounge and music from Africa and the African diaspora.
The ensemble's first album, The Invisible Session (2006), came out on Ishtar's core label, Schema, which has since 1997 brought us, among other pleasures, the immaculately produced music of Nicola Conte. Although no-one could confuse Ishtar's sound with that of Creed Taylor's 1970s' label CTI, the two companies' modus operandi have much in common. First is an insistence on polished production values. Second is attention to the groove. Taylor once said of his CTI productions, "The fundamental thing, always, whatever idiom of music we recorded, was to go for a groove. When it begins to sound like it's just about to lock in, then you start to record. Of course, you need a good tune to start with." Ishtar/Schema/Space Echo co- founders, Luciano Cantone and Davide Rosa, appear to follow a similar process.
Cantone, who produced and plays vibraphone on Echoes Of Africa, co-composed most of the material with trombonist Gianluca Petrella (who is featured on many of Nicola Conte's albums). Cantone and Petrella are the new album's only returnees from The Invisible Session. The new lineup is more cosmopolitan than before and includes musicians from the African diaspora: the Ethiopian- born drummer and percussionist Abdissa Assefa, Gambian-born kora player Haruna Kuyateh and African- American-Finnish poet and MC Benjamin Paavilainen (aka Bentality), who guests on two tracks.
Despite fifteen years and numerous personnel differences between them, The Invisible Session and Echoes Of Africa are cut from the same cloth. Listening to the music is like walking on clouds. But the project also has feet on the ground. Bentality's telling-it- like-it-is rap on the new album's "Hearing The Call," which was written before the murder of George Floyd ignited the Black Lives Matter movement (Echoes Of Africa was recorded in autumn 2019), is powerful and prescient stuff. Elsewhere the album's references to Afrobeat, Ethio- jazz, funk and reggae keep things groovalicious. Altogether, Echoes Of Africa is an enticing blend of spit and polish.
Postscript: This is a good moment to mention Nicola Conte & Spiritual Galaxy's Let Your Light Shine On (MPS, 2018), whose nineteen-strong collective lineup includes The Invisible Session's Gianluca Petrella and Abdissa Assefa, along with other African musicians including South African Fender Rhodes pianist Nduduzo Makhathini. If you missed the album, it is well worth checking out. And more good news: Conte and Petrella's co-led album People Need People is due out on Schema towards the end of February 2021.
From Lagos to Addis Ababa; West Island; Ideas Can Make The World; Hearing The Call; Pull The Handbrake; Journey To The East; People All Around The World Can Make It; Mother Forgive Us; BreatheThe Rhythm; Entoto; From Lagos To Addis Ababa (Extended).
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In addition to writing and editing for All About Jazz, Chris is editor of the British style/culture/history magazine Jocks&Nerds and consultant Afrobeat historian for Google Arts & Culture and Partisan/Knitting Factory Records.