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Abdullah Ibrahim & The WDR Big Band, Cologne: Bombella

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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The emotion of an Abdullah Ibrahim record can be pleasantly overpowering. Bombella, featuring Cologne's WDR Big Band—arranged and conducted by Steve Gray—overpowers with both passion and majesty. From score to large soundstage, Ibrahim translates his regal persona into some of the most memorable music he has ever written, including African Symphony (Enja/JustinTime, 2001), African Suite (Tiptoe, 2001) and Ekapa Lodumo (Tiptoe, 2001). Although the pianist himself cites Senzo (Sunnyside, 2009) as a wellspring for Bombella, listening to this record is like being hit by an unexpected and glorious weightiness in gold, for it is named after the "Gold train" that carries workers down to where that precious metal is mined to ultimately adorn fingers, arms and necks worldwide.

Ever conscious of this gently juxtaposed irony, Ibrahim composes and plays from a sort of singular and solitary magisterium. Frequent references to his music being in a "Ducal" realm are not lost. But so individual is his voic—so carved from the blood and gemstone of African earth—that comparing his tone and manner to anyone living or dead is really impossible. The fact that he is able to write for instruments as broad in scope as the piccolo and baritone saxophone is another wonder that perhaps only Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus were really capable of with such inescapable beauty. This record abounds in the splendor of myriad tones that suggest various moving pictures and a soundscape on a canvas that is both alive and touching.

There are tributes here—gorgeous tributes to a beautiful homeland. "Green Kalahari" swirls and reverberates in a dreamlike circular motion. "District Six (Trance Circle Dance)" shuffles and sways in a heavenly cloud of dust, magical and tonally beautiful as it brings to life the tragic world of displaced folk. "Bombella" and "Meditation—Joan Capetown Flower" are both deeply ponderous yet strangely uplifting, while "African River" sweeps across a bubbling sound canvas that swells and rushes on with power and grace. Then there are the deeply personal, emotional and elegiac sketches: "For Lawrence Brown (Remembrance)" is a silken, flowing track more reminiscent of Mingus' portraits than Duke's. "For Monk," the second half of his homage to Thelonious Monk, is as angular as anything that Monk may have written, yet wholly Ibrahim in its meditative structure and procession. "Mandela" is a joyful sketch of one of the world's best-loved personalities; it glows with sinewy candor and seeming invulnerability. "Song for Sathima" is a tender ballad that flows quietly and with aching emotion.

It is easy to miss Ibrahim's pianism as it remains virtually hidden throughout this record, which is lush with so many timbres and textures including the myriad soft and burnished shades of the magnificently played brass and woodwinds. However, the ballads and homages—from one to his wife to one for Lawrence Brown—open a sluice-gate to Ibrahim's minimal, memorable playing on this, another landmark recording by this timeless master.


Track Listing: Green Kalahari; Song for Sathima; Mandela; District Six (Trance Circle Dance); Bombella; Meditation--Joan Capetown Flower (Emerald Bay); I Mean You/For Monk; For Lawrence Brown (Remembrance); Excursions (Masters and Muses); African River.

Personnel: Abdullah Ibrahim: piano; Paul Shigihara: guitar; John Goldsby: bass; Hans Dekker: drums; Andy Haderer: trumpet; Wim Both: trumpet; Rob Bruynen: trumpet; John Marshall: trumpet; Klaus Osterloh: trumpet; Ludwig Nuss: trombone; Dave Horler: trombone; Bernt Laukamp: trombone; Mattis Cederberg: bass trombone; Heiner Wiberny: alto saxophone, flute, clarinet; Karolina Strassmayer: alto saxophone, flute, clarinet; Olivier Peters: tenor saxophone, flute clarinet; Paul Heller: tenor saxophone, flute clarinet; Jens Neufang: baritone saxophone, flute, clarinet.

Title: Bombella | Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: Sunnyside Records

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