Samuel Yirga

The Samuel Yirga Quartet

The Comedy Theatre, Thursday 7 June, 2012

I heard a piece of music on the car radio a few weeks ago that made my ears twitch. It was a work for solo piano, which sounded unlike anything I’d heard before. There was something unusual about the insistent melody that I couldn’t place, or categorize. It sounded a bit like jazz, but with a hint something faintly exotic, and dreamy. It was, simultaneously, contemplative, melancholy and oddly uplifting. I only caught the musician’s first name, Samuel, and the fact that he was Ethiopian, and due to perform at the Melbourne Jazz Festival.

When I got home, I typed these bare facts into Google, and discovered that I’d been listening to a young man named Samuel Yirga play a tune entitled ‘Ye Bati Koyita’. I don’t usually like buying compressed MP3’s from iTunes, but I immediately gave the Apple Corporation a few measly sheckles so I could hear Yirga’s sublime music without the distraction of traffic noises. I was even more impressed on second listen, and hopped on-line once more to secure tickets for Yirga’s Melbourne concert at the Comedy Theatre.

Yirga, at the ripe old age of 25, has an interesting back story, too. Born in Addis Abada he soaked up the sounds of Ethiojazz, and American pop music, along with the folk traditions of his native land. Initially, Yirga’s parents discouraged the young boy’s musical ambitions, so he didn’t start playing piano until he was 16! He may have started late, but made up for lost time by practicing like a demon — the guy obviously knows the way to Carnegie Hall!

Yirga’s quartet were preceded by The Black Jesus Experience, a local outfit that set the scene with an infectious blend of Ethiojazz, and rap, a potent combination, indeed. There is so much good music in Melbourne, and the standard of musicianship is, as The Black Jesus Experience proved, world class. As good as these guys were, I couldn’t wait for Yirga to take the stage, and summon magic from the ivories.

Yirga is no one trick pony — his solo piano work is compelling, but he is also the master of groove and funk as he demonstrated with the aid of his band — a crack ensemble comprising of electric bass, drums and saxophone. These musicians are finely attuned to their colleagues, and capable of weaving complex rhythms and melodies around each other without sounding overly busy and cluttered. There is no question that each musician is a virtuoso in their own right, but at no point did any of them appear as though they were flaunting their talent at the expense of the music. If this is jazz, it’s most definitely shit I like — atmospheric, and infectiously groovy, with highly accessible elements of popular music (like deep reggae beats, and funk riffs).

The drummer, Nathaniel Zewde, was especially impressive. He hardly broke a sweat, beating the skins and copper like a demon, but with an elegant economy of movement that was as graceful as it was propulsive. The saxophonist, Feleke Woldemariam, was formerly, Yirga’s music teacher, and the older gentleman exuded a sense of unimpeachable cool reminiscent of the iconic John Coltrane.

Yirga was undoubtedly the star of the show, and the audience warmed to his modest, and slightly earnest stage patter, which conveyed a sense of humor and a seriousness of purpose, for Yirga sees himself as an ambassador for his country, a role he fulfills with distinction. Check out Yirga’s full length debut album, Guzo, if you want to hear an eclectic blend of global influences played with real soul, and don’t miss him if he visits your town.

George Harrison – Early Takes, Volume 1

First thought, best thought? Well, on the evidence of George Harrison’s Early Takes, Volume 1, there might be something to be said for this old maxim. There is a freshness, immediacy and intimacy in the ten tracks that comprise this companion piece to Martin Scorsese’s documentary on the life of the late Beatle that is lacking in most of his post-fabs releases. For me, George Harrison’s uneven solo output tends to be overproduced and somewhat bland. In fact, I don’t really count myself as a die-hard Harrison fan. I usually find his slightly nasally singing voice, and thick Liverpudlian accent hard to take for more than a couple of songs, yet this latest CD has been on high rotation since I bought it on impulse a few weeks back. The songs are beautifully written: melodic gems with thoughtful, soulful lyrics about life, death, eternity, and, of course, love. And you don’t need to be a devotee of shaved heads and poppadums to enjoy them.

Most tracks are either demos, or early versions of some of Harrison’s best material — for the most part, they are sparse, and lack the production sheen of their better known counterparts, yet the lack of complex instrumentation, arrangements and studio gimmickry work in their favor. This is not to say these early takes are amateurish, hissy boom box recordings. Harrison installed a state of the art recording facility in his mansion, so unlike his band mate, John Lennon, Harrison’s demos are hi-fidelity sketches, which reveal far more about the man’s music than Scorsese’s rather tedious biography. We actually hear Harrison play guitar in a wide range of styles, and get a palpable sense of his love of making music.

There are snippets of Harrison’s trademark slide guitar, but the acoustic guitar is his weapon of choice on this album. He wields the instrument with considerable flair and confidence, revealing a mastery of several techniques, from Dylan-like strums to complex country runs, that are not obviously evident on his fully produced releases.

The album is consistently good, but I particularly enjoyed hearing Harrison accompanied by Ringo Starr and Klaus Voormann on ‘My Sweet Lord’ and ‘Awaiting On You All’ (well, I’m assuming Starr thumps the skins and Voormann plucks the bass since the CD doesn’t come with many credits, or liner notes). These two tracks evoke the sound of Lennon’s spartan debut, and demonstrate just how effective a simple, sympathetic rhythm section can be (take note, Phil Spector).

It’s no secret that Harrison and Bob Dylan were good friends, and Dylan is represented by two songs. ‘I’d Have You Anytime’ (a Dylan/Harrison composition) sounds lush without being cloying, and Harrison does justice to Dylan’s ‘Mama You’ve Been On My Mind’ by delivering a sober, yet delicate vocal that sits above a very accomplished acoustic guitar, which is occasionally complemented by subtle washes of keyboards.

Other highlights include the slightly spooky Everley Brothers song ‘Let It Be Me’ (they didn’t write, but believe me, it’s theirs). Harrison harmonizes with himself and reminds us of just how important his vocal contribution was to the Beatles in boy band mode. ‘All Things Must Pass’ (which sounds like it also has Starr and Voormann playing supporting roles) is the best Beatles song the band never officially recorded. In fact, bootlegs exist of the group making a few lame, half-assed attempts to work something up, and you can hear how great Lennon and McCartney’s harmonies could have been. Early Takes, showcases this outstanding song in it’s best light: Harrison’s vocal is assured and soulful.

Some might complain that the album is a rip-off since it clocks in at a mere 30 minutes. I actually found the modest running time to be a strength. It’s all killer and no filler. Anyway, there have been some great albums that hover around the 30-minute mark (like Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, Simon And Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence, and Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska). Surely, quality always trumps quantity, no? Hopefully, there are other equally compelling tracks in the Harrison archive that his custodians will unearth for volume 2. Good Shit!

Giles Martin on Early Takes (a track by track account)