Here’s a sketch of a duet between Jason Moran and Sam Rivers, from their album Black Stars.
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.
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:
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.