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Anna Riddel

The Spirit Of Jazz Comes To The Capital Jazz Project
Date Published: Wednesday, 11 May 16   |  Author: Anna Riddel   |     |  1 year, 1 month ago

The jazz musicians are descending from far and wide this June long weekend. If live jazz is your thing, you’ll be delighted to know that The Street Theatre is hosting a teaser version of their now established CAPITAL JAZZ PROJECT.

First held in 2011, this festival has become a biennial staple for Canberra music lovers. It was due to popular demand that The Street Theatre decided to throw a mini version of the festival this year. Of course, that’s only mini in length – not in line-up. The massive bill over four nights includes the crème de la crème of Australian jazz musicians, including award-winning producer, pianist and composer, STU HUNTER. But the festival will also host one international jazz great, MULATU ASTATKE, renowned as the father of Ethio-jazz.

It’s not every day that the founder of an entire genre of music comes to town. But so it is that Mulatu Astatke will play alongside Melbourne-based band BLACK JESUS EXPERIENCE at this year’s Capital Jazz Project. I spoke to Black Jesus Experience band leader Peter Harper about the unique style of Ethio-jazz and of his experience meeting Mulatu.   

Harper’s first experience of African music came through his father, whom in 1963 was teaching the navy band in Ethiopia. Now an established musician himself, this early influence has deeply infiltrated his psyche and style. “Ethiopian music is based around five different forms of pentatonic scales,” Harper explains. “The thing that makes the music so sophisticated is firstly the rhythm, and then the intonation and embellishments. There aren’t just several rhythms going at once, but several time signatures: a three-four running along a four-four, or three-four running along a seven-four – it’s so sophisticated. And it works, it’s entrancing.”

Since establishing Black Jesus Experience, the band has gone on to record and collaborate extensively with Mulatu. Harper recounted how the uncanny union of musicians unfolded. “We were in Ethiopia with Black Jesus Experience in 2009, playing at a jazz club in Addis Ababa called Harlem Jazz,” he recalls. “We wanted to meet Mulatu; it was one of our aims. Then the owner of the club said to us, ‘You should meet my uncle.’ I asked him who his uncle was and he replied, ‘Mulatu Astatke’.”

It turned out that at the same time, Mulatu’s London-based agents were trying to find a contact for Black Jesus Experience in Melbourne. All the while, the Melbourne band were actually in Ethiopia, playing at a club owned by Mulatu’s nephew.

Born in Ethiopia in 1943, Mulatu’s parents sent him to Wales to study engineering in the late 1950s. Instead, he graduated with a music degree from Trinity College of Music in London. From there, Mulatu went on to become the first student from Africa to be enrolled at Berklee College of Music in Boston. When Mulatu returned to Ethiopia after nearly a decade abroad in the UK and USA, he arrived with a new style of music that he termed Ethio-jazz – a now widely popular style in the UK and USA (as well as Ethiopia). This hybrid style combined Mulatu’s musical upbringing in Africa with his education and experience in the golden era of jazz in London and the USA.

Over the years, Mulatu’s style of Ethio-jazz has received affirming nods from key figures in the music industry. Some of his works are still sampled even today, on tracks by such artists as Nas and Damian Marley (‘As We Enter’), Cut Chemist (‘East Side’) and even Kanye West (producing for Common, ‘The Game’). It’s no surprise that Mulatu also has a long history of collaborating with other musicians. A virtuoso on vibraphones, Mulatu played with Duke Ellington in the ’70s.

Luckily for Australians, Mulatu has been working closely with Melbourne-based Ethio-jazz band Black Jesus Experience since 2009. Indeed, when the band play with Mulatu, they know they are in the presence of greatness. “We show one hundred percent respect to Mulatu,” Harper says. “He is the father of Ethio-jazz. We respect his influences and his teachings, but he wants us to be ourselves. We are a collective. We are a collaboration. We respect his music and we make it come to life.”

Black Jesus Experience is a collaboration of musicians from Melbourne whose diverse backgrounds are the essence of the band. They draw the audience to the edge of their seat and into the palm of their hand. The rhythms make dancing irresistible. This is what happens when musicians mix traditional Ethiopian song with jazz, funk, hip-hop and rap. Like how Mulatu mixed traditional Ethipoian music with jazz, Black Jesus Experience creates a unique sound from their different backgrounds. With saxophone, trumpet, guitar, drums, two rap artists and the lead singer (hailing originally from Ethiopia), the band is made of five different nationalities, and this is all celebrated in their music.

According to Harper, the influence of Mulatu goes past the live performances. “Any music the band now writes is written for ourselves, but always with Mulatu in mind, even if he is not there,” he says, acknowledging the connection the band shares with Mulatu. “We have a great friendship now, Mulatu is a fine man, a positive and creative man.” Together they have had multiple recordings and more than once toured Europe, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Ethiopia. In 2013, Mulatu with the Black Jesus Experience were named best national tour by The Age.

From the creator of a genre, to Australian blood forging new bounds, an exciting addition to the Capital Jazz Project’s line-up is the prolific keys player and composer Stu Hunter. Born in Jersey before moving to Australia and spending his teen years right here in Canberra, then back to Sydney and New York, Hunter has delved into countless genres. Hunter’s third and most recent album The Migration first debuted at this year’s Sydney festival. In June, it will be presented at The Street Theatre as part of the Capital Jazz Project. What’s more, Hunter will bring with him a score of Australian jazz musicians.

With a tonne of muso’s on stage, Hunter’s band is a force of nature. “Despite being highly constructed, the piece will be different by nature every time, because there are improvisational elements,” Hunter says of his band’s performance piece. “The musicians have an incredible craft of improvisation and also generating tone and being able to express themselves on their instrument … this really is an ensemble piece.”

The Migration tells a story, but what that story conveys is up to the listener. The images created by Hunter’s exquisite ability to compose and create pictures through music have been widely reflected upon by the composer. Indeed, it was my first comment to him about the work.

“Constant feedback is that there is a really visual experience from listening to the music, like playing out adventures or storylines in the listener’s mind as it’s happening. The music evokes these pictures and a fantasy world in my mind; they co-exist.”

The word ‘Migration’ is a topical concept at the moment. Hunter comments that this piece takes the meaning literally. “It means to move from one place to another. The story could be unfolding over a day or year or lifetime,” he says. “People leap to [the idea of] immigration and may have strong feelings about that. That may be a subtext, but this is about the movement from one place to another – the definition of [the word] migration.”

So what does this all sound like? Imagine a film score that is not background music, but that actually tells the story. One such clever composition can be experienced during the opening scene to the first Matrix film. One of the film’s special features (if you can find it) challenges the viewer to watch the scene with only the music (and without sound effects and dialogue). The fascinating result was that the composers wrote most of the sound effects into the film score; oboes and drums are used in place of sound effects. In a way, that is Stu Hunter’s Migration (without the science-fiction story, of course). Hunter draws from his vast influences to create a work that will draw the listener in and to the edge of their seat.

In that sense, it’s a composition written for the audience. “I want the person I’m listening to to draw me in … so that’s what I try to do when I write and lead an ensemble; I want that to be at the core. The thing I want most from the music is to move the audience. I want them to feel deeply.”

Throughout the suite, the audience will be held captivated by Hunter’s influences and travels – everything from groove bases to rocking tenor saxophone, clarinets that invoke Klezmer-style music, to delicate vocal tones that extend as the music grows. The ability to gather this calibre of musicians, to rehearse the work for four days with an extra two days of recording before touring the album nationally is a testament to more than just the work, but to the respect that Hunter elicits amongst other musicians. Make no mistake, this will be a huge night of big sounds and moving music.

And of course, Mulatu Astatke and the Black Jesus Experience are set to give the audience a night of music that they will remember for a long time to come. A packed stage will include a pulsing horn section, rap, the luring vocals of the lead singer, drums and above all – bringing it together – the genius of Mulatu on vibraphone. The audience will be lead through a profound night of unforgettable music.

For anyone interested in stunning music, storytelling and a moving experience by a collaboration of some of Australia’s best musicians, this is a festival not to be missed.

The Capital Jazz Project will take place from Fri–Mon June 10–13. Stu Hunter will perform on Saturday June 11 at 8pm. Tickets start at $35. Mulatu Astatke and the Black Jesus Experience will perform on Monday June 13 at 6pm. Tickets are $49. All tickets can be purchased via thestreet.org.au. This article was commissioned by The Street Theatre for BMA Magazine.