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Ethiopian Jazz and Other Stuff You've Never Heard Of: Expert Witness with Robert Christgau

The Dean takes his nickname to heart this week and educates the hell out of all you dweebs.
August 19, 2016, 4:56pm

The self-proclaimed “Dean of American Rock Critics,” Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it. He was the music editor at the Village Voice for almost four decades where he created the trusted annual Pazz & Jop Poll. He was one of the first mainstream critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: “Melodic.” On top of his columns, he has published a number of books over his career including his autobiography, Going Into the City, which was released in 2015 to critical acclaim. He currently teaches at New York University. Every week, we publish Expert Witness, his long-running critical column. To read more about his career, read his welcome post; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.


The Rough Guide to Ethiopian Jazz (World Music Network) 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 MINUS

Joi Sound System: Joi Sound System (RealWorld) It does tend schlocky, like so much of what Peter Gabriel's world music label puts out. Yet as someone with no use for Martin Denny or Jean Michel Jarré or for that matter Junoon, I get undifferentiated pleasure from this two-disc best-of by Haroon and Farook Shamsher, Indian-Bangladeshi brothers who came of age mastering '80s sampling and beatmaking skills in their flautist father's East End instrument shop. The Orientalisms they mix in are fresh enough to engage not just gullible U.K. ravers but an openminded outsider like yours truly; their trance grooves don't go for that overbearing Ibiza-style attack. Try the big chorus, kiddie sample, and slow bass hook of "We Need Your Vote" segueing into the hyperactive tablas, reassuring sitars, and female ululations of "My Love." Not everything here is up to that standard. But it's a fair taste. B PLUS


Khun Narin Electric Phin Band: II (Innovative Leisure) Sometimes this Thai electric lute ensemble leads parades, other times it provides atmosphere, a mode favored on this follow-up, and while I'm complaining let me ask why it skips their Cranberries cover ("Thang Yai Thang Yao," "Phom Rak Mueang Thai") **

Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood, and the Rajasthan Express: Junun (Nonesuch) Billing be damned, it's not Israeli composer Tzur or Radiohead busybody Greenwood whose horns, percussion, and vocals are the making of this double-CD—it's the 19 Indian musicians finally named on the back of the 32-page booklet ("Chala Vahi Des," "Modeh") *

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