Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

The Rough Guide to Ethiopian Jazz [World Music Network, 2016]
Addis Ababa jazz godfather Mulatu Astatke has long cited the diminished scales jazz shares with the Derashe people of southern Ethiopian, who he suggests came up with them before not just Charlie Parker but those jazzbos Bach and Debussy. But where Astatke's classic period definitely qualifies as jazz, it's a little misleading to label the most irresistible of Rough Guide's three Ethiopian comps that way, because for for all its horn sections and understated swing, its diminished scales rarely lean on extended improvisation or small-group interaction. Instead, with seven of the nine tracks postdating the fall of the puritanical Marxist-Leninist Derg regime as well as the Selassie-era recordings documented on Buda Musique's Éthiopiques, these selections suggest a confident modernity--arrangements and sonics fuller, melodicism and harmonies defined and developed. Just to double back on this tentative theory, however, I'll note that my favorite track is the finale, a thoughtful Selassie-era piano solo by a nun born in 1923 that I believe would sound just fine in a cocktail lounge. A-