October 18, 2012

Matt Shea is a maestro on the begena

Listening to a new jazz artist can be a total chore. The genre’s stylistic purview is so wide that somebody handing you music and telling you to check it out is a sure fire way for said music to end up under the bed or, these days, languishing in your Dropbox. Ambivalence isn’t helped when the spine reads Real World Records: it’s either the greatest thing you’re ever going to hear, or an Amnesty Shop trainwreck.

Thankfully, on a recent trip to Melbourne I was tricked into listening to Samuel Yirga’s Guzo. Yes, it’s a Real World release, but in this case that should not be seen as a mark of dubious quality, but simply a sign of its unusual origins.

Samuel Yirga is an Ethiopian soloist and bandleader, best known for his work with Ethiopian-UK collective, Dub Colossus. That probably won’t be the case for long, though: on Guzo, the 25-year-old Yirga has managed to produce one of the most striking jazz albums of the year, at the time providing a clear reminder of the beauty and distinction inherent in the Ethiopian take on the form remembered so vividly in the work of Mulatu Astatke and Mahmoud Ahmed.

Guzo’s most immediate cuts are “I Am the Black Gold of the Sun”, a Rotary Connection cover replete with vocals provided by the Creole Choir of Cuba, and the gorgeous, spectral solo piano-piece, “Yeh Bati Koyita”. Together, these two tunes act like an anchor on the first time listener, their virtues obvious. But the soul-driven catharsis that they conjure rapidly seeps through the rest of the playlist: to the Fela Kuti-inspired “Firma Ena Wereket”, which allows its halting melody to descend into something creeping and almost primal; or “Dance With The Legend”, where Yirga explores another hemisphere by displaying all the vitality and sweat-driven passion of a Keith Jarrett in his prime.

Guzo’s one of those rare albums where your favorite moment changes from one listen to the next, the various bustling arrangements easily adapting and engaging with the listener’s different moods. And all from a man who’s yet to celebrate his 26th birthday.

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