Monthly Archives: February 2019

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I’ve mentioned before that I love the music of Sun Ra.  I think of him as something of an “adjacent-universe Duke Ellington”, and he probably would have been delighted with that description.  There are some close parallels between Sun Ra (born Herman Blount) and Ellington; he was an accomplished pianist with a deep knowledge of ragtime and church music, but made his name mostly as a composer for jazz orchestra; his music was often tailored to the musical strengths and personalities of individual band members, and many of those collaborators stayed with the band for decades; he was always writing and rewriting music on the fly, and it’s sometimes hard to know how much of a Sun Ra piece is improvised and how much is preconceived.  Even though he used to travel with suitcases full of sheet music, portions of a Sun Ra Arkestra concert would be open to group improvisation and experimentation.  I recommend John Szwed’s biography Space is the Place if you want to learn more about a unique American icon.

This song comes from one of Sun Ra’s early studio albums, and it’s reminiscent of a lot of the popular music from the big band era.  Still, it has a few harmonic quirks that give it a more modern flavor.

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Yekatit

This is one of the better-known songs by percussionist Mulatu Astatke.  His music has a sound and style all its own, and Yekatit is a good example.  The whole song is based on a 5-note scale:

Yekatit chord scale

This scale is just two triads on top of each other, Bb minor (Bb Db F) and an A major (A Db/C# E), and the tension between these two sounds really makes the song.  The melody describes a Bb minor tonality, but the bass is always playing an A chord underneath.  It’s not until the B section that the polarity is flipped and the melody comes to rest on an A major sound.  The soft but insistent buzzing of dissonance in the low frequencies reminds me of the tingling numbness I feel when I’m out walking on a freezing cold day.  I was pleased to learn that Yekatit means “February” in Amharic.

YekatitYekatit