Multi-instrumentalist singer Meklit is one of brightest lights in Ethiopian jazz But that’s just the starting point for the ex-Brooklynite songwriter, who springboards off that into a high-voltage mix that also draws on classic soul, funk, rock and ancient Ethiopian folk music. Her Lincoln Center show back in April was off the hook. Now she’s got a new album, When the People Move, the Music Moves Too, soon to be streaming at Bandcamp, and a release show tomorrow night, June 21 at 8 PM at the old Nublu at 62 Ave. C.. Cover is $22.
Since she absconded for the west coast, she’s assembled a killer band. Their not-so-secret weapon is tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley. The rest of the vast cast on the album also comprises but is hardly limited to drummer Colin Douglas, percussionist Marco Peris Coppola and bassist Sam Bevan. The rest of the crew spans from Ethiopian masenko fiddler Endris Hassen to the Preservation Hall Horns.
The triumphantly bouncing, swaying opening track, This Was Made Here, celebrates a DIY esthetic, but there’s also a lot of defiance in the bandleader’s “I’m not gonna wait, no more!” as Tassew Wondem’s Ethiopian wood flute leaps and bounds overhead. The brightly circlingI Want to Sing For Them All also has a defiant undercurrent – on the surface, it sends shouts out to Meklit’s influences, from Prince to a litany of Ethio-jazz stars, but it’s also a reminder that pigeonholing is a big mistake. As Hannah Arendt liked to say, stereotyping is the worst thing in the world. Andrew Bird’s violin pairs with the masenko as the dance rises to fever pitch.
Meklit breaks out her krar harp for the album’s catchiest track, Supernova. Powerful low-register brass fuels a vast, pulsingly dramatic backdrop as Wiley goes into wary Ethiopian mode. The mantra is “Where did you come from,” the point being that everything we’re made of came in with a bang: don’t we owe it to ourselves to keep that going?
Likewise, the Preservation Hall Horns supply the bluster behind Kibrome Birhane’s spare, incisive piano in the funky anthem You Are My Luck. Bird brings his violin back to the subtly polyrhythmic, mutedly moody Yerakeh Yeresal. Then the band pucks up the pace with You Got Me: hearing the New Orleans brass sink their teeth into Meklit’s gorgeously biting, emphatic Ethiopian arrangement is a trip, and a revelation.
Yesterday Is a Tizita brings back the grey-sky atmosphere, a lament that rises to the point where the sky clears and Meklit announces that “Our mistakes became the sun” – her loping triplet melody is one of the album’s most delicious moments.
Wiley’s catchy, ominous baritone sax riffage drives Human Animal, a straight-ahead mix of hard funk and Ethio-jazz, with hints of 80s new wave. Sweet or Salty maintains that balance of 80s British pop and rustic Ethiopian themes, with acidically swirling masenko against lushly enigmatic strings and understatedly jubilant rat-at-tat percussion.
Happy Birthday starts out as a cute attempt at a replacement for an all-too-familiar ditty that could really, REALLY use a replacement, then becomes an intricate thicket of melody, winding up with a jaunty conversation between Wiley’s tenor sax and one of the trombonists. The album closes with Memories of the Future, shifting back and forth between a majestic, distantly uneasy sway and a jubilant, cantering theme fueled by the New Orleans horns. Lots going on here, plenty to sink your ears into over and over again – one of the best albums of 2017, bar none.