Now entering his eighth decade, pianist Abdullah Ibrahim has been largely responsible for introducing the world to South African jazz and attracting new ears to its warm, reverent tradition, whether from exile or Cape Town. To celebrate his 70th birthday, his 50th year on record, and his 35th anniversary as an Enja Records recording artist, the label has assembled this collection.
As compilations go, this is about as wide-ranging and inclusive as one could reasonably expect from a single label. It includes twelve originals dating from 1973 to 1997, with all players and source recordings identified in the liner notes. It's also got a very serious fourteen-page biographical essay by Lars Rasmussen, compiler of a comprehensive discography, plus classic photos from the early '60s and beyond. Kudos to Enja for getting this one right.
While Abdullah Ibrahim is best known as a pianist, A Celebration also includes four tracks where he plays other instruments, including voice, soprano saxophone, and bamboo flute. The opening "Ntzikana's Bell (from Good News from Africa, recorded in 1973) finds him in a glowing duet with the late bassist Johnny Dyani, both sharing a warm vocal melody over piano and bass accompaniment. This mellow piece reveals the element of careful balance which has always been key in Ibrahim's musiclight and dark in close proximity, drawing relative strength from each other, illuminating an emotional range which never comes across as forced or unnatural.
Ibrahim plays soprano saxophone on two other '70s selections ("Ishmael, "Imam ), where he colors notes with vibrato and overtones, layering a raw, spiritual energy on an otherwise rolling background driven by bass riffs and polyrhythmic drum counterpoint. The light funk of the latter piece feels frisky and adventurous. But then it's back into a more somber mode with "Saud, another (piano/bass) duet with Dyani, and the three-minute "Earth Bird, where he flies on bamboo flute over repetitive, trance-like accompaniment by Billy Higgins on the gambray (a string instrument).
Three larger group pieces from the '80s include multiple horns in the front line. The members of Ibrahim's Ekaya ("Home ) septet have changed over the years, but both "The Mountain and "Mannenberg Revisited (from Water From An Ancient Well, recorded in 1985) feature flautist Carlos Ward, saxophonists Ricky Ford and Charles Davis, trombonist Dick Griffin, bassist David Williams, and drummer Ben Riley. Ward in particular seems to resonate with the upbeat message of Ibrahim's music, bringing to mind similar vibrations with Don Pullen's African-Brazilian Connection.
Whether or not you enjoy the thicker textures of "Mindif, recorded for African Suite in 1997, depends on your taste for orchestral accompaniment; I prefer the piano trio without the strings. Similarly, the closing "Calypso Minor Remixed (from the brand new Re: Brahim) will likely offend jazz purists who don't appreciate the virtues of beat-heavy electronic remixes, but it's got a magnetic quality that's hard to refuse, and it's quite catchy in its own way.
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Abdullah Ibrahim (piano, vocal, soprano sax, bamboo flute, compositions). With John Betsch (drums);
Roy Brooks (drums);
Belden Bullock (bass);
Johnny Classens Kumalo (vocal);
Charles Davis (baritone sax);
Johnny Dyani (bass);
Essiet Okun Essiet (bass);
Ricky Ford (tenor sax);
George Gray (drums);
Craig Handy (sax);
Billy Higgins (drums);
Cecil McBee (bass);
Talib Qadr (alto sax);
Ben Riley (drums);
Carlos Ward (sax, flute); and others.