Samuel Yirga is a pianist from Ethiopia whose debut record, “Guzo,” sits somewhere in that fertile ground where jazz mingles with R&B and funk to create soulful beauty. Recorded in Addis Ababa and at Real World Studios outside of Bristol, England, with producer Nick Page (best known to aging electronica heads for co-founding Transglobal Underground), the album suggests an updated, dynamic version of Ethiojazz, the rhythmic movement that soundtracked the country in the 1950s and ’60s, most prominently through the music of Mulatu Astatke.
Though only in his mid-20s, Yirga’s appetite is big, and each surprise within “Guzo” renders easy comparisons useless. Be it an eight-bar bridge in the album’s highlight, “My Head,” that upends the song’s structure for a glorious turn before returning to a Brazil-inspired groove, or the swirling a cappella trip of “Nou Se Soleil” (featuring the Creole Choir of Cuba) or the solo piano meditation “Yeh Bati Koyita,” Yirga’s debut offers surprise after surprise. He also covers the smooth early ‘70s classic by the Rotary Connection, “I Am the Black Gold of the Sun.”
Combined, “Guzo” is perfect for fans of the rhythms of Northern Africa, for listeners partial to the visionary work of pianist Dollar Brand, or for those merely interested in hearing an eloquent young voice express new ideas on the piano.