Trumpeter Hermon Mehari’s new ‘Asmara’ album looks to his Eritrean roots

“Asmara” album artwork (Lossapardo)

Hermon Mehari was born in Dallas and grew up mostly in Jefferson City, but the jazz trumpeter’s latest album takes inspiration from far beyond America.

“Asmara” is named for the capital of Eritrea, the country in eastern Africa from which his family hails. As such, the music on the album reflects those geographical roots.

“Eritrean music is very rhythmic and is fundamentally based on dancing, much like jazz with its swing roots,” said Mehari, who is currently based in Paris but has become well established on the Kansas City jazz scene. “Harmonically, it is much simpler than jazz, but this sound is akin to the modal jazz of the ’60s that John Coltrane and Miles Davis were exploring.”

Indeed, the trumpeter cites a number of significant jazz figures as having an impact on his approach to his sound.

“My favorite trumpeters of the past are Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, and Louis Armstrong,” he said. “As improvising musicians, saxophonists John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and Logan Richardson have had more of an influence on me. And in a large musical conceptual manner, (trumpeter) Miles Davis is important to me.”

Mehari began to embrace his artistry as a teenager.

“I took trumpet lessons in high school, went to many music camps, played shows every weekend in mid-Missouri and ended up studying at the Conservatory at UMKC,” he said.

“Throughout the years, I’ve paid meticulous attention to how I learn, and have refined my self-teaching to be more efficient. I’m still doing (that) to this day.”

On “Asmara” (Komos), Mehari is accompanied by pianist-vibraphonist Peter Schlamb, bassist Luca Fattorini, drummer Gautier Garrigue and (on two tracks) Eritrean vocalist Faytinga.

The compositions on the album emerged over an extended period, Mehari said.

“I spent isolated time in Paris, New York City, Los Angeles, and Mexico City to focus on the writing of this music. Many of the melodies came to me while going on long walks throughout the cities. Conceptually, I wanted to take different elements from Eritrean music for each song so that I could have variety throughout the album.”

“Asmara” has been critically well received, with The Guardian newspaper praising the album for its “propulsive, jazz-inflected take on Eritrean folk music,” singling out the track “Call Me Habesha” as “channeling a free-flowing swing.” Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors Magazine notes that “Asmara” is “full of a kind of uncommon grace. It feels like a love letter to (Mehari’s) home country . . . Eritrea.”

Mehari credits longtime friend and musical collaborator Schlamb as being essential to the album’s success.

“We share a lot of the same musical values and ideals,” he said. “Besides being one of the best vibraphonists and pianists in the world, he brings an understanding of what I’m trying to communicate with my music that no one else could have, given our deep friendship and rapport.”

Calvin Wilson

Calvin Wilson is an arts writer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He is also host and creator of the jazz program, “Somethin’ Else,” on 107.3 FM and 96.3 HD2 in St. Louis.

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