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Either/Orchestra: Ethiopiques 20: Live In Addis

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After Either/Orchestra recorded three Ethiopian jazz compositions on 2000’s More Beautiful Than Death, the Boston group received several positive responses from the music’s practitioners, including Francis Falceto, editor of the Ethipioques compilation series. His feedback eventually led to E/O’s performance at the Ethiopian Music Festival, where this two-disc album was recorded. The extended visit exposed them to additional songs that they were able to arrange and practice for the concerts. Augmented at times by five Ethiopian singers and musicians, E/O’s set stuck strictly to the jazz of that country, staying faithful to the originals while simultaneously blowing it with the fury of a Mingus big band.

Although many of the pieces are harmonically simple, built on two-chord vamps, the complexities lie in the melodies and rhythms. On “Keset Eswa Betcha” veteran Ethiopian percussionist Mulatu Astatqe engages in a discourse with E/O’s percussion section that requires drummer Harvey B. Wirht to hold down a steady beat while Astatqe and Vicente Lebron change time signatures over top of him. Tenor saxophonist Getachew Mekurya sits in for his adaptation of the 1950s war chant “Shellela,” which shifts between an Albert Ayler-esque march and a flowing passage reminiscent of Pharoah Sanders’ spiritual moments.

On its own, Either/Orchestra fairs well with this music. Leader Russ Gershon delivers a muscular soprano-saxophone solo on “Feqer Aydelem Wey.” For 15 minutes, the group arrangement of “Amlak Abet Abet” tempers a mix of groove, clattering percussion and band vamps to enliven the solos.