Reviews February 2, 2017

Black Flower is a jazz group that hails from Belgium, but you probably wouldn't guess it based on how they sound. Painting with the pentatonic brush of Golden Age Ethiopian music, Black Flower proves to be more than just capable imitators. There are stylistic sleights of hand all over the album that are applied so gracefully as to be almost invisible.

For instance, the title track, “Artifacts,” has plenty of that woodwind-keyboard interplay, as melodic lines bounce from flutes to keys and back, like a Getatchew Mekurya track. But Black Flower augments the instruments with guitars that are washed dub-influenced delay, a decidedly modern move.

The band members play in Gypsy jazz and ska bands, and the results show up, but only in the most complementary ways. The opening track, “Bones,” has hollow acoustic percussion that drives a plucky, Gypsy-jazz slink that, by the second track, “Alexandria,” gives way to a fine Afro-funk groove anchored by a drum kit.

Even their closer homages are done selectively and made their own. “High Upon the Mountain, High Upon the Hill” has a swing and openness that's every bit as relaxed as Mulatu Astatke's “Tezeta" (Nostalgia) but trades Astatke's casual 6/8 meter for something decidedly off-kilter. But with the bass cheerfully wandering around in the middle of the sonic spectrum and the airy trumpet solo, it's only a secret that reveals itself if you look for it.

There's a lot to recommend this band of contemporary European guys playing old musical styles from Ethiopia, but they sort of undercut their own credibility with the album's accompanying copy, which could be read as Orientalist. They've obviously done their research on the music to create something as nuanced, gloaming and delightfully ominous as the track “Sound Sacrament;” no real reason to add in some dread at “exotic sounds” in your promo copy, particularly when you aren't African.

The music seems deeply rooted in respect of a complex and singular musical time and place. The group seems to see those elements—artifacts—as their playground and they take them to interesting places. It's a delightful journey to join them. To order Artifacts, click here.

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