Now entering his eighth decade, Abdullah Ibrahim has long ago established himself as a true master of jazzwhether in New York, London, Cape Town, or beyond.
The pianist has accomplished two very important things in the last fifty years. First, he has brought South African jazz to the world, recruiting new fans to its characteristically warm, reverent vibestill taking regular risks to tap into outer realms of spiritual energy, but never far from his roots in bop, classical, and gospel music. He might not have sold as many records as either of his country's other two expatriate superstars, Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, but he never ventured as far as they did into pop territory, either.
Ibrahim's second important accomplishment as a musical ambassador has been bringing the world to South African jazz through his openness to the rhythms, harmonies, and styles of Brazil (eg. samba), New Orleans (funk), Europe (modern classical), and Argentina (tango), to paint a broad swatch across territories which each have a rainbow of their own colors to offer. And that's not to mention various styles of jazz which are predominantly rooted in the United States; much has been made of the Ellington influence, for example, and various avant-garde strains from New York and Chicago. One can hear these influences in younger South African players like Zim Ngqawana.
Enja Records has been releasing much of Ibrahim's work for 35 years, and to commemorate this anniversary (as well as the artist's 50-year mark in recording), the label has put out two compilations in cooperation with Justin Time for North American release. The first, A Celebration, presents twelve tracks from the '70s through the '90s, providing a balanced and vibrant retrospective on Ibrahim's career. The second, Re: Brahim, collects nine mostly tepid remixes by electronic artists.
Abdullah Ibrahim: A Celebration
As compilations go, A Celebration 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 14-page biographical essay by Lars Rasmussen, who has compiled 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 Re: Brahim, see below) 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.
Re: Brahim - Abdullah Ibrahim Remixed
Before hitting play on this collection of remixes, it's worth pausing for a moment to consider what about Abdullah Ibrahim's music makes it most suitable for this kind of postmodern recycling endeavor. It's often built on loose grooves, which can be deconstructed and looped to create expanded space for other instruments. It's always got a strong melodic core, which is best used to advantage even if thoroughly deconstructed. And it's usually got a certain optimistic quality, which should be exploited but never trivialized.
One can judge the relative merits of these remixes by how well they take advantage of the grooves, melody, and tone of the source material. DJ Explizit's "Calypso Minor, which closes the Celebration compilation above and gets this set started, introduces heavy hip-hop beats, but it preserves and showcases lots of acoustic sounds at the core of the music. The reinvented melody is fresh and positive.
Other pieces on this compilation suffer from heavy-handedness to one degree or another. Toshio Matsuura's amorphous treatment of "Did You Hear That Sound sprawls without any sort of compelling melodic hook along the way, and it ends up feeling like more was taken away from the music than was given back, despite trumpeter Shuichiro Sakaguchi's best efforts. (Who had the awful idea of adding another pianist to the mix?) The reverberant, hypnotic trance of Dave Geene's remix of "The Call is painfully thick, running awry into clichéd head-nodding oblivion. Glitchy stop-and-go rhythms interrupt the flow of the pretty "Blues for a Hip King, sounding like adolescent play on a drum machine.
However, Philipp Winter's relatively laid back "Bigband Version of "Mindif manages to overlay some unexpected instrumental combinations that propel the piece forward through cascades of mid-tempo horn fanfares. DJ Spooky brings his usual sense of forward motion to the the "Trio Version of "Mindif, collecting dark clouds around the edges of the melody before blowing it up into a mad swirl of funky beats.
Visit Abdullah Ibrahim and Mantra Modes on the web.
All About Jazz: South Africa
Tracks and Personnel
Personnel: 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.
Tracks: Ntsikana's Bell; Ishmael; The Perfumed Garden; Imam; Saud; Earth Bird; African Marketplace; Ancient Cape; Mountain of the Night; Siya Hamba Namhlanje; Mannenberg Revisited; Mindif; Calypso Minor Remixed.
Re:Brahim - Abdullah Ibrahim Remixed
Personnel: DJ Explizit; Toshio Matsuura; Stefan Rogall (Sonarkollektiv); Dave Geene; Kinderzimmer Productions; Philipp Winter; Christian Prommer (of Fauna Flash); Motorcitysoul; DJ Spooky.
Tracks: Calypso Minor; Did You Hear That Sound; Ishmael; The Call; Blues for a Hip King; Mindif (Bigband Version); Sweet Samba; Damara Blue; Mindif (Trio Version).