Is This Jazz? The New Mulatu Astatke Album

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"Masenqo," from Mulatu Astatke & The Heliocentrics, Inspiration Information 3.

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Cover to Mulatu Astatke/The Heliocentrics' new album.

Cover art to Mulatu Astatke & The Heliocentrics' new album. () Courtesy of Strut Records hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Strut Records

I know, I know. The response to this question is always "does it matter?" And the answer is usually "no."

Still, it's occasionally useful to explore. And this year, there seems to be some balking at the inclusion of Ethopian groove music pioneer Mulatu Astatke within the jazz umbrella. I heard it privately from a few people when Bob Boilen, host/creator of NPR Music's All Songs Considered, called Astatke's new album Inspiration Information 3 "the best jazz record I've heard in 2009." Recently, the voracious listener known as Free Jazz Stef also expressed some reservations:

This album is OK, but nothing more than that. It is a mixture of stuff, often characterless, but the Ethopian's music is so compelling, that it even withstands the treatment given here. I hope it will lead listeners to the real music.

Stef provides a valuable service in sharing opinions about underheard music (within an underheard genre), and for free, at that. So one wouldn't hold him to the standards of a professional critic. But he does raise this essentialist notion of "real music" versus this "stuff," which I find problematic.

Proper background: pianist, hand percussionist, vibraphonist and composer Mulatu Astake is commonly known as the father of "Ethio-jazz," a hybrid of the scale modes of his native Ethiopia with Western harmonic concepts and jazz sensibilities. (Robert Christgau has more info in his NPR review, plus more tracks from the album, too.) Usually, the collaborators he chooses are more overtly "jazzy," or at least connected with swing feel.

The Heliocentrics, Astatke's London-based collaborators on this new record, are a different animal. Their sound comes at the intersection of psychedelic rock, sample-ready funk breakbeats, acid jazz, avant-garde electronic music ... basically, it grooves hard. But the band does so in ways that tend to turn some people off. At least for Stef, the band's "funky combination of trip hop, jazz and psychedelia" can add "insult to injury," and I can understand that characterization. I trust we've all been in situations where musically inclusive, fusion-y music comes on and hits exactly the wrong nerve, right? I mean, at least I could name a few jazz-affiliated jam bands which I can't personally stand.

So it would be one thing to say, "I think the instrumental settings to Astatke's music are bland on this album." That's at least a defensible claim, based on an adversion to the sound. But to say, "that's not real jazz" is, I think, a little more blurry. It's largely instrumental music with solo improvisation, driving rhythmic foundations and a harmonic framework derived from an Afro-Western hybrid. I don't think the actual sound of the record conforms precisely to my nebulous platonic ideal of "jazz" either, but you might at least say it "contains" jazz or features some of the same building blocks of jazz or has a jazz spirit of collaboration.

And furthermore, I don't begrudge anyone who would call it jazz. The real root of the problem, as I understand it, is that if the jazz media covers "sorta"-jazz too frequently, it begins to overshadow the supposedly actual jazz that is going on. True, I don't want people missing out on the 2009 albums which have more jazz content to them; I want to see artists who dedicate themselves more thoroughly to jazz getting the attention they merit. But if a well-liked listener like Bob says "this is good" and "this is jazz," it's good for the long term of the art. More people will be exposed to instrumental, improvised music; jazz will become less scary.

I'll readily admit that I like the record a good deal, and that's coloring my judgment here. On opening track "Masenqo," for instance: the impressionistic piano introduction backed with those electronic textures sets me in the right mood. The way the melodic vocal, doubled by an exotic-sounding bowed string instrument of some sort, breaks abruptly into a dank, blurry, neck-snapping bass line and snare kick — really freaking hip! And the weathered sound of the piano is recorded, in my estimation, just right for the way (presumably) Astatke develops ideas and resolves them with familiar patterns and virtuosic runs. The way the song is constructed, the arco bass at the end (or is that cello?), the seamless studio craft: a lot of it just sounds so crisp and fresh. It's a song you could put on at a party — in fact, I've recently done this very thing — with full confidence in the serious craft behind the backbeats.

Had I disliked Inspiration Information, I might be a little anxious to disavow the music as watering down our art form. But I think it would behoove us all to stop thinking about music in that light. Even if you could convincingly argue that something is or is not jazz, you won't have said anything about whether or not the music is worth listening to. We ought to hate bad music because it's ponderous, or empty, or boring. Ultimately, that's the best border patrol good jazz could ask for anyway.

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