Tommy T is best known as Gogol Bordello’s Ethiopian bassist. Along with his Abyssinia Roots Collective band, Mr. T has spent two years perfecting his debut solo album The Prester John Sessions. It is somewhat of a departure from the theatrical ‘gypsy punk’ noise we are used to hearing from him, but Tommy T has managed to maintain the refreshing sense of diversity in this album.
The overriding flavour is rootsy, and unfortunately it isn’t as good as anything produced by Kiwi outfits Fat Freddy’s Drop or Katchafire to name but two. The vocals are somewhat lacklustre, although guest appearances from Gigi in ‘The Response’ and ‘Eden’ provide a degree of class.
This is secondary though, since voices are present in only half the tracks. Instead, the album is more of an instrumental feast. The rhythm section delivers some meaty grooves, and Tommy T feels far more at ease skanking along on the bass than singing. What is most enjoyable about the Prester John Sessions is the breadth of its sounds; in one track, sparse and serene, and in another, richly textured and energetic. Moreover, the very character of each song is different, some emphasising dub influences, while others are clearly more traditionally Ethiopian in feel.
When it comes down to it, Tommy T’s first attempt is distinctly average. Occasional flecks of brilliance in the funky beats in East-West Express and the soaring trumpet runs in Eden are drowned out by mediocrity. Its saving grace is its diversity, and in Tommy’s own words, it delivers a mix of ‘dub, funk, jazz and Western musical approaches to a musical foundation built firmly upon Ethiopian soil’. Anyone looking for mainstream tunes with catchy lyrics, this is one to avoid, while my advice to roots/dub lovers is to look elsewhere.