Mahmou D Ahmed & Eit Her/Orchestra
It was perhaps inevitable that Either/Orchestra would someday collaborate with the great veteran Ethiopian vocalist Mahmoud Ahmed. The 10- piece E/O, though rooted in jazz, has never been tied to one stream of thought—Afro-Cuban percussion, rock drive, bop open-endedness and tightly wound funk all figure into its mix, and the group had already been fusing Ethiopian music with jazz elements for a few years when it was invited to play at the Ethiopian Music Festival in Addis Ababa in 2004 (the first American big band to appear in the country since Duke Ellington in 1973).
The summit meeting with Ahmed took place at a festival in Paris in spring of 2006, and that program is documented here in stunning fidelity and visuals. Ahmed is a lively one, jumping, dancing and clapping his hands as he navigates the stage, and his lived-in voice is a gift: His phrasing is fluid and elastic and his command hypnotic as he intones his self-penned songs in his native language. For their part, Either/Orchestra, which had never met Ahmed before the first rehearsal, is clearly in awe of his powers and rises to the occasion. It is a big band in size only, not because its members share a predilection toward nostalgia for a bygone era, and its soloists—six of the 10 are horn players, including the band’s founder, tenor and soprano saxophonist Russ Gershon—are each forward-thinking, resourceful players. When they lock into a groove with Ahmed, and with a second vocalist, a young, stylish Ethiopian woman named Tsèdènia Gèbrè Marqos, who introduces a more modern variation on the music, what they’re playing is neither strictly jazz nor world music but something else all together. The DVD also features interview clips with Gershon and Ahmed placing the music and the historical pairing in perspective. Unfortunately, those clips sometimes interrupt the music, which truly deserves to be heard whole.