Essential New Music: Large Unit Fendika’s “Ethiobraz”

One quality that Paal Nilssen-Love has sustained across decades of work in improvised music is transparency. No matter who he plays with and regardless of the presence or absence of pre-arranged structures, his musical ideas are absolutely clear. This transparency is a foundational virtue of Ethiobraz. 

The Norwegian-born drummer has been visiting Ethiopia for more than a decade and Brazil since 2013, and the influence of both nations’ rich musical heritages is clear in his playing. Those years correspond with Nilssen-Love’s shift from being the drummer to play with if you want to be tested by the best into a bandleader in his own right. He’s devoted considerable time and resources to Large Unit, a big band composed of (mostly) younger Scandinavian jazz musicians, touring it around the world in a time when most ensembles that size are doing pretty well if they can hold down a monthly gig in a single town. 

Recorded live at the Molde Jazz Festival in July 2018, Ethiobraz documents the moment when Nilssen-Love put it all together and brought it all back home. For one night, the Large Unit was augmented by a pair of Brazilian percussionists, Ethiopian traditional song-and-dance troupe Fendika and guitarist Terrie Ex, and transformed into a gloriously unbridled dance party.

The task of getting musicians from three continents and disparate musical traditions to work cohesively is daunting, but Large Unit’s exuberant horns keep their footing atop the tri-continental grooves and make space to clearly hear Ethiopian stringed instruments best suited to intimate cabaret performances. Brief, fiery solos pepper the tunes, turning the heat up by degrees, affirming the Unit’s roots in free jazz. Ex’s guitar playing performs a double function; his deep background in playing Ethiopian music helps keep certain songs on the rails, but his gleefully chaotic solos fuel the wildest moments. Special credit goes to singer Nardos Tesfaye, who soulful delivery transcends the language barrier. 

—Bill Meyer