No current director uses music better than Jim Jarmusch. It’s easy to hear what drew him to sides recorded in the 1970s by the Ethiopian vibist, percussionist, and composer Mulatu Astatke for this year’s Broken Flowers. To American ears, including Bill Murray’s, the groove and spiral of Astatke’s tezetas is both exotic and reminiscent of home. And the blaxploitation and spaghetti western echoes make it sound like movie music already. At Joe’s Pub last month, Astatke guested with the Either/Orchestra, an eclectic Boston-based 10-piece led by saxophonist Russ Gershon, whose documented fascination with Astatke and Ethiojazz predates Jarmusch’s by a decade. Along with a medley of the three numbers used in Broken Flowers, the hour-long set included selections from E/O’s new Live in Addis, the headiest of which was Astatke and Gershon’s arrangement of Téshomé Meteku and Abubaker Ashiké’s “Yézéméd Yébada,” with its overlapping riffs and sudden silences followed by tempo surges beneath the horn solos. Although the best place to hear Astatke is on the Broken Flowers soundtrack or Éthiopiques 4, Live in Addis introduces us to several gripping singers, including Bahta Gébré-Heywét and Tsédénia Gébré-Marqos, and to tenor saxophonist Gétatchéw Mékurya—said by Gershon to be Ethiopia’s Albert Ayler, though the resemblance ends with Mékurya’s lurching vibrato. The African diaspora gave birth to jazz, smitten African musicians adopt it to their own purposes, and jazz replenishes itself by looking to them—the circle never closes.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 25, 2005