Graded on a Curve:
Dexter Story,
Bahir

For a guy just releasing his third full-length, Los Angeleno Dexter Story’s credits and experiences are wide-ranging, with this depth of background vividly reflected in his work and nowhere more than in Bahir, his second LP for Soundway. Having spent extensive time in Africa, Story combines a variety of styles from that continent with jazz, funk, and contemporary production techniques. It’s not his first time tapping into the sounds of Africa (and Ethiopia in particular), but the music here expands rather than retreads, and it delivers consistent rewards. It’s in stores on vinyl and digital March 15.  

Vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, producer and arranger Dexter Story’s prior two records under his own name are Seasons, which came out in 2012 on the Kindred Spirits label, and Wondem from 2015, his first for Soundway. Prior, he was part of Life Force Trio, an outfit featuring Carlos Niño (who has co-produced all of Story’s LPs) and a “floating” third member; they released Living Room on Plug Research in 2006.

Life Force Trio came into being through Niño recruiting Story as instrumentalist for vocalist Dwight Trible’s 2005 set for Ninja Tune, Love is the Answer. The endeavor went so swimmingly that Life Force Trio are co-credited on the album. It’s all unsurprising, as Story’s strengths as a player are considerable, having backed LA alt-hip-hop group Sa-Ra Creative Partners and taken part in (alongside Niño, Trible and many others) the ensemble Build an Ark.

A pervasive characteristic of Story’s music is a sort of advanced soulfulness, though during Bahir’s opener (too brief, but understandably so, as it serves as a sort of prelude) the cascading harps travel into the realms of spiritual jazz a la Alice Coltrane. It heralds the arrival of “Biba,” where a flurry of elements in Story’s execution get solidly asserted, the first being a thorough connection to the contemporary as heard through pitch-shifted vocals. Rather than feeling grafted on, the singing coheres productively with the bold African-derived joyousness of the tune.

The woody bowed strings of the coda also effectively underscore Story’s multifaceted skills as arranger. He recruits a bevy of guests throughout the album, with Kibrom Birhane the singer on “Biba,” LA-based violinist-vocalist Sudan Archives contributing to the fluid groove of the decidedly Cali-flavored “Gold,” and Hailie Supreme lending his voice to the Ethio-jazzy “Ras.”

Bahir flows exceptionally well, but “Mamdooh” is a particular highlight in how it intertwines string arrangements that strengthen the record’s African thrust (similar to those heard in “Biba”) but with a touch of symphonic ’70s soundtrack funkiness. Along the way, keyboards and saxophone underline the instrumental flair as bookending guitar passages point toward Tuareg sounds.

Described as an ode to the ’70s music and dance of Ethiopia’s Guragigna people, “Electric Gurage” is a sprightly mover, and released as a single, it’s something of a thematic focal point for Bahir. It contrasts well with “Buna Be Chow,” though the Afro-funk heat of that track is also nicely layered, with the wordless vocals rising in intensity alongside the rhythmic heft; it’s easy to imagine it fruitfully prolonged in a live setting. The same is true for the Somali-tinged “Chemin De Fer,” and subsequent track “Desta’s Groove,” which at under 90 seconds is another selection that’s over too quickly.

On the other hand, Story’s avoidance of riding a good idea until it wears thin is to be admired. Additionally, the contempo production flair of “Jijiga Jijiya” continues to illuminate a disinclination to register as a throwback. However, “Shuruba Song” reinforces that the African foundation is strong; the richness of Hamelmal Abate’s vocalizing gets accompanied with drum machines, electric keyboards, synth textures, and even a little backwards guitar.

By the time we arrive at the title track, with its ample helping of simmering funk decorated with a succession of cyclical motifs, Story has transcended his template. Finale “Abebaye” is a showcase for singer Marie Daulne (she also guests on “Jijiga Jijiya”), she of Zap Mama, a group who released their first record way back in 1991 via Crammed Discs.

Detailing Zap Mama’s background is more than an aside, as this record would fit very comfortably onto the Crammed Disc’s roster, though the contents here in no way suffer as part of Soundway’s overall scheme. Early on, that label was noted for its reissues of African music (amongst other global regions), but they eventually broadened their focus to include more current happenings. Like this one. Intrinsically tied to past developments, Dexter Story’s Bahir is the sound of now.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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