|Duke Ellington Presents from 1963 introduces the world to Abdullah Ibrahim, then living in Switzerland. Nelson Mandela invites the prodigal son back to South Africa in 1990. Subsequently, Ibrahim performs at Mandela’s inauguration in 1994. Since then he has continued to find his own way toward new musical worlds.|
In 2019 Abdullah Ibrahim produced The Balance, his first recording as a leader since 2014. I found the music to be remarkable. While searching his discography for other albums offering his warm, melodic sound, the discovery that Ibrahim was a bandleader starting in 1963 left me feeling pretty stupid. Perhaps this pianist and composer had not appeared on my jazz radar because of how his music is most often described and labeled.
Best guess is that previously reading about Abdullah Ibrahim being connected with Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, and Archie Shepp would imply a free jazz orientation – not a genre I listen to much. Then again, talk of Cape Jazz from South Africa favoring gospel influences was also not so interesting. Ditto for his important works like Mannenberg, being described as a major part of the anti-apartheid sound – if we can assume there really was one sound to describe that heady time in South Africa. Then there are the movie soundtracks. Oh, and born Adolph Johannes Brand in 1936 then going by the name Dollar Brand on his earliest recordings, finally becoming Abdullah Ibrahim in 1968 when he converted to Islam made recognition challenging. Also, as we will reference, he has maintained a lifelong interest in Zen Buddhism even after his conversion to Islam.
His first, eponymous album, The Dollar Brand Trio, was produced by Duke Ellington in 1963. It is an impressive freshman performance and in hindsight clearly points in the direction Ibrahim has pursued for decades. The real surprise is that through all the so-called Cape jazz-free jazz-protest jazz-soundtrack jazz phases, Abdullah Ibrahim’s sound has been remarkably consistent, and certainly not defined by any of these labels. For a discussion of his music, where I will make my own assertions as to his influences, we’ll focus on two albums: the 2011 release Sotho Blue and Mukashi from 2013.
Sotho Blue is a collection of Ibrahim original compositions that include one song by Bud Powell. We hear the influences of Ellington, Powell, New Orleans, and the West Coast jazz of the 1960s. Sounds of the orient and surprisingly contemporary jazz references speak to an open mind, enjoying without embracing. The saxophone, flute, and trombone trade places as lead vocals to Ibrahim’s piano from song to song taking the music from highs to lows. It can remind us of the emotions engendered when we travel as flaneurs rather than tourists. Yet the album is described as “background music” and for “private rumination and meditation” by a resource I usually respect. Neither of these comments rings even remotely relevant when listening to the album. Again, labels and comparisons can be misleading and even unfair.
|1. Calypso Minor||4. Nisa||7. Glass Enclosure|
|2. Sotho Blue||5. The Mountain||8. Star Dance|
|3. Abide||6. The Wedding||9. Joan Capetown Flower|
Consider this, a hot new trumpeter is on the scene and we ask someone recently having heard the player live what she sounds like. A response of Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis provides little insight. Dizzy hard bop or big band? Miles first quintet or electric? Using Dizzy and Salt Peanuts or Miles and Kind of Blue makes it clear what to expect. Free jazz? Have you actually listened to one of his recordings? The piano of Ahmad Jamal? Too cerebral, Abdullah Ibrahim is more playful. The piano of Chick Corea? Too muscular, Ibrahim is more lyrical. The influences of Ellington and Monk are assumed by his own admission. With Ibrahim offering so many references that are, quite frankly, somewhat tangential to the music he plays proves a distraction. Though I can’t offer a good point of reference. (Note to self; listen before assuming.)
Mukashi, named for a Zen master Ibrahim deeply respects, is an album that might be more appropriate for meditation, assuming forceful solos don’t harsh your mellow. This music inspires thought not introspection. The recording doesn’t sound oriental though it includes the sound of traditional Japanese flute playing. Perhaps some bright spots reflect the definitions of World Music, while he also plays at the fringes of traditional American jazz. All the labels, the genres, and definitions blur in Mukashi. The most interesting of the Ibrahim recordings currently on my playlist, it is also the most challenging.
Sotho Blue and the piano solo album from 2008, Senzo (mostly his greatest hits), are getting the most playtime these days. I prefer music without words so that it doesn’t distract me while reading books and magazines. Curiously, I have found myself pausing mid-sentence upon hearing a phrase or block of notes in Ibrahim’s playing. He definitely has something to say and doesn’t need words to express an idea.
For those interested in hearing Abdullah Ibrahim, a good start would be with The Balance. An elegant and confident album, once again featuring compositions by Ibrahim, with one by Monk. Ellington would be a proud and happy mentor hearing Ibrahim at 86 still playing like a seeker of new worlds.