It’s been a little over ten years since Hailu Mergia re-emerged on the international music scene. Following the first in a series of his classic recordings reissued in collaboration with Awesome Tapes From Africa, Mergia assembled a band and began performing live again after many years driving a cab in Washington, DC. His first show back appeared on the front page of the New York Times along with a stellar review and he took off from there performing his flavor of Ethiopian jazz all over the world in the years since, including Radio City Music Hall and Montreal Jazz Festival.
Finally, we have a recorded document of the keyboard player’s powerful DC-based trio—which practices each weekend in his basement—featuring Kenneth Joseph on drums and Alemseged Kebede on bass. Beautifully captured at one of their fiery live shows at the venerable Brooklyn non-profit cultural center Pioneer Works on July 1, 2016, the concert was recorded by PW staff and mixed by Ted Young with mastering by ATFA’s expert audio extraction collaborator Jessica Thompson. The performance clarifies what many people across the globe already know: in his fifth decade of music-making Hailu Mergia continues to push the boundaries of his remarkable abilities.
Mergia and his veteran band energetically and playfully unpeel layer after layer of harmonic and rhythmic interest out of a spectrum of Ethiopian repertoire. Modern jazz demands constant reinvention and improvisation, night after night creating new works out of known modes and classic standards. This band is unstoppable when it comes to turning age-old melodies (like “Tizita” or “Anchihoye Lene”) upside down and inside out until they emerge as molten new works, often spontaneously. Mergia’s original compositions (like “Yegle Nesh”) shine brighter than ever here as well. Moving from keyboard to organ to accordion to melodica, he deftly switches instruments—often during the same song. Mergia at 77 years old seems to be working harder than musicians half his age.
"Pioneer Works Swing (Live)" brings into focus the kind of onstage group improvisation and deadly solo passages that reach for places Mergia and the band have never gone, on festival and club stages across four continents.
Now that Mergia has released two new recordings along with four classic reissues, he is eager to let everyone hear what he’s been doing on the road since he re-took the global stage for his victory laps. So much more than an old act from yesteryear, Mergia balances his legendary Ethiopian recordings with good old-fashioned sweat-soaked live concert triumphs such as the one we have here.