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Abdullah Ibrahim: African Piano

John Kelman By

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Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett are widely thought to have represented ECM Records' initial solo piano forays with Piano Improvisations, Vol. 1 & 2 (1971/1972) and Facing You (1972), respectively, but a lesser-known recording from 1969, unreleased until 1973 on ECM's sister label, JAPO, could be considered its true first. Originally released under Dollar Brand's birth surname as the South African pianist had yet to convert to Islam and become Abdullah Ibrahim, African Piano's reissue as part of ECM's Re:solutions series is now attributed to Ibrahim on the cover, though the liner notes inside remain—somewhat confusingly for those not in the know—credited to Brand.

Creating further confusion, this continues 39-minute set recorded at Copenhagen's renowned Jazzhus Montmartre remains listed here as JAPO release, even though its first appearance on CD in 1991 was rebranded as an ECM recording. But these factual discrepancies/quibbles are really minor when it comes down to the real question: how is the music?

In a nutshell: excellent, and for a number of reasons. First, only a few ECM recordings have been made in clubs, and none of them sound like this; at the start of the opening "bra joe from Kilimanjaro," the sounds of glasses clinking and people talking/coughing/moving almost dominate, but as Ibrahim's riff-driven modal tune begins to pick up steam, these external sounds disappear, leaving just the music, suggesting the pianist had commanded attention almost instantly. And how could he not? While his 5/4 left hand-driven riff remains constant throughout the tune's 11-minutes, the freedom explored with his right is truly exhilarating as it runs the gamut from gentle themes and McCoy Tyner-esque fourths to more outré explorations, amazing feats of rapid-fire virtuosity and hints of middle eastern tonalities.

Only "The Moon" approaches African Piano's opening tune in length, a more up-tempo piece that, at eight minutes in length, is more joyously consonant and redolent of the music of his country and his upbringing, with hints of gospel and indigenous folk music filtering through. "xaba" may only be forty seconds in length, but it's a brief injection of church before moving to the more rhythmically boogieing but harmonically abstruse "sunset in blue," which seamlessly marries modal jazz concerns with South African motifs.

It's hard to know if this music was preconceived in any way or, like Jarrett, drawn completely from the ether, but if there was any preplanning, Ibrahim's liberated approach—which takes the brighter, firm-handed consonance of "jabulani—easter joy" and injects moments of oblique majesty, abstract expressionism and Cecil Taylor-like block chords to create a miniature encyclopedia of jazz piano—comes clearly from a South African perspective rather than Jarrett's American viewpoint.

Spirituality also runs deep through African Piano. Ibrahim continues to record to this day, but the captivating African Piano—his second solo album after Reflections (Black Lion, 1965)—presents a pianist in flux: both spiritually, in his pending conversion to Islam; and musically, as he begins a move away from the more avant tendencies of his early recordings towards a greater acceptance/inclusion of the South African heritage that remains an unavoidable—and unmistakable—part of his DNA.

Track Listing: bra joe from Kilimanjaro; selby that THE ETERNAL SPIRIT IS THE ONLY REALITY; THE MOON; xaba; sunset in blue; kippy; jabulani - easter joy; tintiyana.

Personnel: Abdullah Ibrahim: piano.

Title: African Piano | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: Japo Records


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