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Published: 2009/11/30
by Brian Robbins

Tommy T
The Prester John Sessions

Easy Star

Before we go any further here, I need to tell you something: Tommy T’s got tone.

I’m serious about this, folks: along with all the other reasons that you should listen to this album (and there are many), I am here to tell you that Tommy T plays with the absolutely sweetest bass tone you will ever find. When the man lays into his instrument, you almost feel it rather than hear it – not in terms of volume, but in the roundness of the sound. It’s almost as if he bypasses the initial moment of contact with the string and doles out the big pure bubble of tone itself, all warm and deeper than deep. ‘Tis the truth.

The Prester John Sessions is Tommy T’s (or Thomas T. Gobena, whom you may know from the NYC-based gypsy punkers Gogol Bordello) first solo album – and it’s an impressive piece of work. Returning to his Ethiopian roots, Tommy T has put together a mix of new tunes and rearrangements of traditional songs from his homeland. Call it jazz reggae, call it world funk, call it … call it whatever you want to, but don’t waste a lot of time trying to label it – just listen to it.

This was intended to be “music without boundaries” and it succeeds as such. The core group of musicians on the album (known as the Abyssinia Roots Collective) produces textures of sound with plenty of room in the knit for improvisation. Horns dance with the keys; a vintage reggae guitar sound gently zaps us back 30-something years; and throughout it all, THAT BASS TONE and the percussion tend to the soul and the heart. Additional players (including Tommy’s brother Henock Temesgen) contribute extra layers of horns, percussion, keys, vocals, and traditional Ethiopian instruments along the way. The production compliments the music beautifully with occasional ventures into dub space as the mood warrants.

And, above all, it jams. (Isn’t that why we’re here?)

Take “The Eighth Wonder”, for instance: the opening moments offer a gentle weave of keyboard and what sounds like early-70s wah guitar with Tommy’s bass launching those big bubbles of soul underneath. The central voice of the song (courtesy of an Ethiopian single-stringed instrument called a massinqo) comes bobbing and dipping into the mix like a big ol’ butterfly, pursued moments later by the drums. The swirl of percussion, bass, keys, massinqo, and horns is hypnotic, but never monotonous. The drums drop out every now and then, allowing the music to drift and breathe – until it all goes rolling and tumbling into space again.

Just as the music defies labels at times, even the roles of the instruments become blurred: on “East-West Express” the horns have a feel that’s almost percussive rather than melodic, flowing like a line of hand drummers. Elsewhere, “Oromo Dub (Cushitic Dub)” wraps you up in a magic quilt with no inside and no outside – just warmth – while “Tribute To A King” is a riddim-and-horn fest. The massinqo again leads the way on “Beyond Fasiladas”, a tune which will have fans of the Derek Trucks Band thinking, “Ah – so that’s where it all comes from …” “September Blues” is a beautiful sax duet, the voices initially lost in their separate emotions, eventually blending into one song of love.

You can delve as deeply into the messages and the history of the music on The Prester John Sessions as you’d like, but you can also simply enjoy the album for what it is: a great mix of instrumentation, rhythms, and musical culture with its own voice – one that sounds ancient and fresh at the same time. If the goal was a “universal vibe,” then Tommy T and The Abyssinia Roots Collective have done what they set out to do.

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