Ethiopian keyboardist Kibrom Birhane plants the flag for Ethio-jazz with Here and There,
his third album as leader. Exposed to Ethiopian Orthodox chanting and traditional music in his youth, Birhane later studied at the Mekane Yesus School of Jazz Music in Addis Ababa. A scholarship to study production and sound engineering then led him to the Los Angeles College of Music. Those seminal influences permeated Kibrom's Tizita
(Self-Produced, 2014) and Time For Everything
(Self-Produced, 2016), with Birhane singing in the ancient liturgical language Ge'ez, and traditional instrumentation meeting pop, straight-ahead jazz and post-production soundscaping. Though frequently alluring, the music fired in fits and starts, a charge that cannot be levelled at the more groove-centric and stylistically cohesive Here And There.
Several musical threads entwine throughout these eleven tracks. The three-horn front-line of Randal Fisher
(saxophone), Fabio Santana (trombone) and Glenn Holdaway (trumpet) reels off one harmonious unison motif after another. Spare, grooving bass lines (Dave Pinewood on eight tracks, Misgana Mulat on three) and drummer Jake Najor's steady, uncluttered rhythms imbue the music with head-bobbing momentum. Birhane brings a raft of textures to the mix on Wurlitzer, piano, and organ. There is more than a hint of Ray Manzarek/The Doors in his gently swirling electric piano lines, particularly on the trance-like "Weleta" and the dub-reggae-cum-psychedelic trip that is "Mender."
If public radio gave instrumental music half a chance, then the gloriously feel-good "Merkato" or the handsome slow-burner "Ethiopia," which features Birhane on krar
(Ethiopian lute), could be huge summer anthems. But Birhane also does down 'n' dirty, notably on the Taureg-like desert blues of "Enate," fueled by chanting vocals, Nadav Peled
's gnashing guitar riff and Khalil Cummings' cantering percussion. The tune's rugged, potent vibe is somewhat diluted, however, by an odd-ball telephone conversation tacked on at the end.
Solos are not in short supply, though tend to be brief. Fisher's turn on the infectious "Maleda" is a highlight. Peled's dancing improvisation on "Merkato" is another; more of the talented Israeli guitarist might have injected a bit more bite into the album's just occasionally meandering plateaus. And while Birhane also unfurls some delightfully lyrical solos, teasing and tumbling, it is the grooves, one senses, that are his bag.
With Here And There
Birhane brings a contemporary edge to ancient tradition, reboots retro sounds and marries jazz and roots music to intoxicating effect. There is earthy funk in the music's veins, 1960s psychedelia, trance and astral jazz that plots a course between Charles Lloyd
and Kamasi Washington
. This should be the album that launches Birhane and Ethio-jazz to a wider public.
Merkato; Weleta; Enate; Ethiopia; Mender; Digis; Maleda; Pendulum; Tinish Tinish; Circles; Abetu.
Kirbrom Birhane: Wurlitzer, piano, organ, Talkbox and vocals; Nadav Peled: guitar; Randal Fisher: saxophone; Fabio
Santana: trombone; Glenn Holdaway: trumpet; Kahlil Cummings: percussion; Jake Najor: drums; Dave Pinewood:
bass (1-7, 11); Misgana Mulat: bass (8-10); Etsegenet Tadesse: vocals (7, 10).