Mulutu Astatke and Black Jesus ExperiencePhoto – Lisa Beaumont

Ethiopian composer and musician, Mulatu Astatke, the father of ‘Ethio-Jazz’ is a man who invented his own genre of music, combining traditional melodies and rhythms with American Jazz, Latin and funk influences. For the 2016 Jazz Festival The Coopers Malthouse hosted the world premiere of The Cradle, the third album from the collaboration of Astatke and Melbourne’s Black Jesus Experience. The local musicians warm up the audience before according a reverential welcome to the 72-year-old jazz elder. Astatke makes his way unassumingly to his vibraphone and gently lays down the melody as Black Jesus Experience recreates his signature rolling rhythms and sparse wah-wah guitar overlayed by horns and piano.

Astatke’s extensive background in jazz and his African-Latin infused Ellington-like compositions inform his distinctive, funky, soul-inspired horn-heavy juxtaposition of Ethiopian and western-influenced music. Besides new songs from The Cradle, the set list includes well-loved songs Netsanet and Mulatu along with Sabye.

Astatke’s a humble presence onstage, here as composer and musical compass rather than the key performer. He plays vibraphone, electric piano, congas and timbales with Black Jesus Experience’s rhythm section (Chris Frangou on bass, guitarist Zac Lister, Nui Moon on percussion and drummer James Davies) providing a roiling texture for the soaring flugelhorn of Ian Dixon and tenor saxophone of Peter Harper. The symbiosis between the two horn players is a treat to witness. Veteran jazz pianist Bob Sedergreen on piano and keyboards is a sure current in this meandering oh-so-smooth beautiful river.

To me, a discordant note in the show is the occasional addition of MC Liam Monkhouse, whose fluent old school rap seems incongruent with the deceptively simple Ethio-jazz blend. Virtuoso as ‘The Monk’ is, there’s something gratuitous about this element; I can’t see how his presence enhances the show. However, when traditional singer Enushu appears with her muted haunting vocals, bringing a quasi-spiritual tone to the performance, the deep roots of Astatke’s music are realized. The night ends as it should, with the audience on its feet.

2016 Melbourne International Jazz Festival
Mulatu Astatke and Black Jesus Experience

Venue: Merlyn Theatre, The Coopers Malthouse |113 Sturt Street, Southbank VIC
Date: 8 June 2016
Tickets: $69 – $61

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