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Given the considerable number of African Jews living in Ethiopia, it makes perfect cultural sense for Israeli pianist Yitzhak Yedid to team up with Ethiopian sax man and vocalist Abatte Barihun to explore the music of Ethiopia on Ras Deshen, a work which mines the common musical ground shared by their countries. Yedid and Abatte performed selections from the disc recently at a reception at Alice Tully Hall and didn't let the crowd's lack of attentiveness diminish the passion of their playing.
The opening "Anchi Hoye, written by Abatte, is named for one of the four modes of Ethiopian music. Abatte plays the tenor with a measured tension and clear tenderness that manages to reference both Pres and Trane. Yedid's brooding timbre, interior dialogue and chord progressions are so reminiscent of Keith Jarrett that his solo could be dropped seamlessly into the grooves of The Köln Concert.
On "Batti, Abatte enhances his soprano saxophone with soaring vocals in Amharic. When he performed this song at the reception, his voice cut through the conversation and, at least momentarily, demanded everyone's attention. Abatte's tenor on "Yehar Shererit has a palpable R&B/gospel tinge, with an occasional gutbucket growl added for good measure, working in tandem with Yedid's playful boogie-woogie chaos. "Fikir is a beautifully ruminative discourse that sounds quite Middle Eastern in its execution, with Abatte's serpentine tenor weaving around Yedid's lush, symphonic piano riffs.
Yedid lays out on "Birtukane, giving the floor to Fentahon Malessa on krar, an Ethiopian lyre that sounds close to a guitar and gives the music another rich dimension. On "Ambassel, another modal tune, Abatte solos powerfully over Malessa's repeated figure. Yedid lays out again and one can only wonder how all three instruments would have sounded together.
Perhaps the disc's most arresting tune, however, is "Behatito Kadus Kadus. With Yedid vamping in a Fats Waller vein, Abatte lifts his voice again and could be singing about a hellhound on his trail, instead of invoking a prayer. Abatte's tenor grooves between Ethiopia and the Mississippi Delta, ending this excellent disc on a high note.