Kibrom Birhane - Circles (Flying Carpet Records, 2020)
One of contemporary Jazz's most lauded figures brings together a world class ensemble to record a live cut one take masterpiece that just goes to show that improv is very much alive and well.
When the stars align when it comes to crafting music on the spot, it often births some pretty spectacular results, not just in the rich feel but the vitality that flows forth from every corner of the composition. Improv has remains an integral part of music's rich tapestry, transcending boundaries and convention to provide moments of true brilliance, an intuitive response to the feeling within the recording studio that remains grounded in the energies which flow from each musician and what they are trying to convey to one another. A shared concioucness that operates as one, a ideology unspoken but merely translated through playing and interacting, a spiritual flow that rides the crest of the collected motion that transpires with each passing bar. We remain constantly locked in within the minute details, the electrical shocks of flair, the wavering presence of change that resides around the corner, taking in each bar as it floats by with all its passively brilliant energy, waiting and biding its time for the next moment of pure pulsation to occur. Enthralling, enticing and deeply touching, we remain bound to the flows that ripple through the tracks very essence, residing somewhere near the core and constantly fluxing through the mid sections to provide moments that continually capture the imagination. Jazz has always provided this kind of feeling within us, as its very foundations is all about the movement between the known and the unknown, the conventional and the unconventional, with its history created and soundtracked by many African-American musical legends who shared commonality in their sound and the meaning behind their music. Within its many sub genres, this core value was explored further, with the sounds of bebop, spiritual jazz, free jazz, jazz funk and jazz fusion drawing power from the many early evolutions and innovations with the overarching genre to bring something very new and very exciting to the sound. Globally, jazz would become a enduring phenomenon, inspiring countless generations of musicians to be brave, be bold, to challenge convention and dare to blend and craft at will, a attitude that remains as prevalent today as it ever did. Its influence had major affects on numerous scenes across the globe, with many talents having a crack at their interpretation of what jazz meant and perhaps how more importantly it could be incorporated into their localised sound, with some wonderfully brilliant results taking shape. The free flowing form, the integral feel that abounds from every corner, and perhaps most importantly, the freedom and fun associated with the utmost of musical expressionism, we get carried away on a tidal wave of intrigue and excellence, transported to a jazzy utopia where the vibe meanders and weaves but always draws us back to its core threads.
Kibrom Birhane has remained very much in the contemporary musical consciousness for a while now, and the time seems very much right to step out into his own musical voyage. Ethopian born Birhane is a breath of fresh air in the contemporary context, not just for his enrichingly complex and layered keys but the overall tone he brings to his style, blending jazz styles from the past with many Ethopain-Jazz tropes thrown in for good measure, and the results are unsurprisingly stunning. His musical mind is very much in tune with the long and improvised structures that Spirtiual Jazz in particular looked to harness, in that reactions and synergy worked in tandem to craft epic soundscapes that continually morphed to provide musical experiences that forever changed the face of music. His craftsmanship remains endlessly tender, with a seemingly bottomless pool of knowledge and talent to draw upon, a feeling that resonates deep within all kinds of jazz lovers across the spectrum. A member of the Los Angeles based Ethio-Cali jazz ensemble, which includes fellow Jazz extordinaries such as Kasami Washington, Dexter Story and Mark De-Clive Lowe, Birhane has honed his craft by providing keys and production to a number of very varied and intriguing records, that span a multitude of genres, which seems very much part of his broad enthusiasm for applying his craft into other styles and contexts. It this adaptability and musical depth that has allowed Birhane to contribute to these records, which cover a significant amount of differing styles, all of which seems to come very naturally to Birhane and his approaches to making music. Some of the records he worked on include the 2016 single 'Hush' and the 2017 single 'Take That Time' by American group Empire Assembly, the 2019's 'Sonic Landmark' LP by Maurice Gainen, and the excellent 2019 LP 'Bahir' by fellow Ethio-Cali member Dexter Story, that was one of that year's true landmarks and musical statements. So, with many contributions to records under his belt, and being surrounded by some of the finest Jazz musicians in the world, the time seems right for Birhane to strike out on his own and define his own statements, in his own methods, surrounded by those he musically binds with and trusts, a sound that retains a semblance of structure but is continually looking, searching for something new, something special, something to believe in.
So, in the tradition of collectiveness and sharing, Birhane bought together some musicians and they recorded the spellbindingly beautiful 'Circles' record, that arrives via the Flying Carpet imprint. The band consisted of Birhane, saxophonist Randal Fisher, percussionist Kahlil Cummings, guitarist Nadav Peled, bassist Misgana Mulat, drummer Jake Najor and Etsegenet Mekonnen contributing vocals, and the end results couldn't be any more infatuating. Recorded live on reel-to-reel without headphones, the music that flows from the record is one of true vitality and meaning, where the talent involved not only displays it to the fullest but showcases how when the mixing bowl of styles and substances intertwine to create intuitive and mesmerising music. Every single structure and bar comes so naturally within the flows of the track, where each musician knows the time and the place to swell or recede, craft complexity or reduce the sound to the heart that beats through, or to come together in a momentous moment that defies expectation and replaces it with pure joy. We as the listeners become fully absorbed into the comings and goings, with the plateaus and free flowing dynamics rolling into one naturally winding soundscape that populates itself with all manner of unbelievable objects and undeniable grooves, washed along on a sea of opportunity and mood. So, without further delay, lets get into this.....
Up first comes the title track, and we start off with the gently grooving drums to get us going. The rising synth line emerges within the distant background, which signals the bass to play away underneath the soft drumming patterns, and this in turn sees all manner of elements come straight to the surface. Little key flourishes, sharp and sweet chordal sweeps, razor sharp guitar swipes and more start to fill the world with colour and vitality, with the track moving into its first melodic hook, where the sax makes its presence known alongside the rhodes line, the two sequences working alongside each other seamlessly in a partnership that could move mountains. The melodies fall away to revert back to the core rhythmic drivers, where little percussive features make their presence known, with each instrument taking the time to craft some kind of audial interest in every passing second, with the sax emerging from the sea to ensure the first climax of the track begins with a fiery sense of passion indeed. The sax moves and flows with the riding waves, as its solo brings up the energy levels intensely with the keys and drums rising higher and higher to bring the wave up to its peak position, before the water washes away to reveal a smooth sandy undertone. The drums and percussion switch it up a bit, creating a more dense bedrock for the keys to nurture the next phase of musical experience, with their tender feel sliding right across the spectrum of the track, with the light guitar work peeking through on the right hand side. The section leads right into the second climax, which draws itself out through swells and deep diving instrumentation, creating a sonically laden feel that then descends back into the original structures of it all, with the softly spoken sax and key line leading the track out into the distant horizon line, its story told yet there remains so many hidden treasures for us to get a hold of next time we give it a listen. And trust us when we say we will be revisiting this track a whole lot more in the future. Stunning stuff. Up next comes 'Tinish Tinish', and this one dives straight into it with the drums leading the way before the keys arrive right on time. The chord progression is inherently moving forward, leading the charge through the sea of increasingly dense rhythmic layers, with the vocoder style vocal adding further fascination into the mix. The overall feel seems very rooted in African musical stylings, with the high end key lines blending expertly with the core driving percussion, with lots of little lines and sequences weaving in and out of the groove, crafting a hypnotic feel that is hard to shake at all. The keys do a lot of the leg work in terms of furthering the trance like state we find ourselves within, expanding the energy and reach of the track continually, as it dips from the explosive high octane fullness and into more dubby territories. The sax then takes its turn to lie itself on the bed of musical flow, taking over the lead line as the guitar does some excellent work in the backdrop, adding in a distinct layer of funk into proceedings, as we deepen further into the consciousness. Damn.
To finish things up, we have 'Pendulum', and this one begins in a rhythmically laden guitar and bass line. The drums arrive soon after, their delicate sweeps moving underneath the groove with all the cares in the world, and its not too long until the keys and sax arrive, adding in further melodicness as the moments pass us by. The blend of instruments is inherently satisfying to listen to, as the drums occupy the bottom ends, with the melodic flourishes occurring on all sides of the panning up above, crafting a delicate soundscape that relies heavily on the contents speaking and interacting with one another. The track descends into the percussive heavy segment of the track, where the keys are given the foundations to really shine and perform to the best of their abilities, drifting from slow and steady to dense and free flowing in a mere snapshot, grooving from the energetic to the melodically enriching, all of which comes to a head when the track moves up into its first tidal crest. The keys become intensely dense, the drums respond in likeness, before the key change that leads into an inherently psychedelic infused segment, where the guitar comes over in all its fluid funk style, creating a beautiful backdrop that remains so easy to get lost within. The playing is akin to the substantial energies on display across the whole record, its placement and tonal exploration one of great beauty, aligning itself up top as the track sees itself out with one final sweep of the sax. A fitting end to a record that will have you constantly coming back for more. Brilliance ain't the word.
To sit through this album is to witness and experience improvisation at its very finest. The ensemble bought together by Birhane demonstrates just why they are so highly regarded, with the musicianship on display simply astounding, bringing in new levels of excellence to a genre that prides itself on the daring and the unexpected. But its the obvious connection and passion that they all share which comes across massively, with a fundamental understanding that flows from every corner of the record with grace and purpose, each note played like it might be their last, encouraging each other to express themselves to the absolute fullest. And then there's the music, which is quite frankly beautiful, a bountiful experience that will continue to serve up experiences time and time again. Its music rooted in Jazz and Ethio-Jazz but also bringing so much of what fusion and funk celebrate, all under one roof, and to think it was all created in one sitting. A truly special album, a one of a kind, and certainly in our best of the year list. A true slice of genius.
Support the troops: