Just got the new Mulatu Astatke recording--Mulatu Steps Ahead (Strut 056CD). I believe this is his first recording of all new material since the 70s. His band is members of the Either Orchestra, a Boston area (semi) big band with a recording in the Ethiopiques series-- #20.
It was apparent from the outset that it was going to be very strong. I can say that depending on which context you wish to adopt, it may be his strongest work ever. From my standpoint, that is unequivocally so. His earliest recordings were fabulous in part because he was so young and impressionable when he made them. He was eager to embrace and expound upon a wide range of styles, influences he'd soaked up, primarily from western sources, and incorporate them in multiples of ways into the music of his native Ethiopia. As a result, the pieces in those recordings tended to bounce around, stylistically, a lot--which in his best recordings was a plus.
Mulatu Steps Ahead is far more (to use an overworked word) seamless. His wide range of influences have melted into a sort of ethnic jazz lounge-y stew that sounds equally as fresh as anything he did 30-40 years ago but has the advantage of greater maturity and technical expertise. I kept waiting for a weak track to come along but it didn't happen!
One other thing that could have "blown it" AFAIC, is that the producers did not go for the highly polished sound that marks so many modern recordings (Astatke himself was the "executive" producer). It was like he/they wanted to retain the aura of his past work--done, no doubt, in fairly primitive studios. This work was recorded over a two-year period in Acton MA, London, and Addis Abba. There is no indicator that all players were present at any of those studios and so it is likely that there was a fair degree of post-production work to bring it all together. In my view, then, the result of that approach is near miraculous and a testimony to the sensitivity and restraint of the producers.
An absolute gem.