More than 2,000 years and at least 1,000 miles, mostly desert, separate the site of the Temple of Dendur in Egypt and modern Addis Ababa. But it still felt fitting and historic last Friday when Mulatu Astatke took the stage in the Temple’s current home at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As the recognized “father of Ethio-jazz,” Astatke has built his career on merging the ancient with the modern as well as the African with the American.
According to the introduction offered by Astatke’s musical director, British saxophonist James Arben, Friday’s concert marked the first time that Astatke had played in New York in a decade. That would make the show, presented by the World Music Institute, his first appearance since his 2006 U.S. tour with Boston’s Either/Orchestra, which followed shortly after the release of Jim Jarmusch’s film Broken Flowers, the Astatke-centric soundtrack of which helped bring the Ethiopian composer’s name to a wider audience.
More significant, that 2006 concert was Astatke’s first visit to New York since his brief residence there in the early ’60s, making Friday’s show only his second appearance in the city in more than 50 years. He quickly made up for lost time with a spirited and entrancing set that spanned his career and spotlighted his gift for shifting fluidly between intricate, sinuous melodies and airy, atmospheric grooves.
Other than Arben, the remainder of the band for the occasion was filled out by well-chosen New York-based players; the saxophonist shared the frontline with the increasingly impressive trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, while keyboardist Jason Lindner supplied a variety of synth textures or locked in with the rhythm section of bassist Tal Mashiach and drummer Daniel Freedman.
The horns swelled a soft bed immediately upon taking the stage, establishing a hypnotic drone that would recur throughout the evening. As the melody of “Tsome Diguwa” slowly emerged, Astatke entered in a gold and black shirt, uttered his modest thanks, and stepped to the vibraphone. As the intro piece segued into the first full tune, “Dewel,” Astatke took a graceful solo that displayed the same winding contours as his written melodies. The master’s phrasing is subtle, spacious and insinuating, never insistent; even as the velocity picked up over the course of a solo the restraint stayed, every statement seeming like a question allowed to float in the air, hints rather than declarations.
That approach was consistent no matter what instrument Astatke turned his attention to. Pivoting from vibes to Rhodes on several pieces, he spun out similarly twisting, silken lines, allowing them to hang in the cavernous space of the Temple like unmoored spiderwebs caught in a breeze. Even when hammering out conga rhythms on the heavily Latin-inflected “The Way to Nice,” he left room for echoes to sound or for Lindner to interject cascading lines or sudden stabs.
Well aware of the reach of Jarmusch’s film, Astatke turned to his best-known song, “Yekermo Sew,” early, introducing the piece with a shimmering solo turn on the vibes. As the familiar yet strange tune was introduced, the lights on the Temple coincidentally shifted from yellow to purple, introducing an aptly twilit mood for the melancholy composition. O’Farrill, by now used to navigating odd-angled lines thanks to his work in Rudresh Mahanthappa’s “Bird Calls” band, darted boldly around the song’s pliable melody with varied attacks, finally trailing off with dub-like ripples.
In the arc of that one solo could be found the revelation of Astatke’s music. Throughout the 90-minute program, one piece after another seduced the ear with the serpentine challenge of its exotic melodies, then loosed the listener into a blissful, weightless space buoyed by relaxed funk grooves. Set free in that same space, the band seized the opportunity to bounce off its elastic surfaces and one another, maintaining the tension between the explosive and the chill that feels subtly inherent in Astatke’s writing.
The full range of dynamics was best exemplified by a three-song suite that merged Astatke’s “Green Africa,” “Azmari” and “Chic Chica.” The mysterious meanderings through the pentatonic Ethiopian scale might suddenly be submerged into an electronic haze or a muted, intimate percussion conversation; that hush might just as abruptly be shattered by an anthemic fanfare. Switching between tenor and flute, Arben revealed the benefits of his lengthier relationship with the leader, tearing off blustering sax roars or rapid, fluttering flute riffs that released at just the right moment to drift into ecstatic free-fall.
Other than a few soft-spoken introductions, Astatke said little throughout the night and gave no indication of the rarity of his appearance. The 72-year-old pioneer simply conjured a relaxed but rapturous evening of music as unassuming as its creator, and as momentous as its history.