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Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya: Sotho Blue

Ian Patterson By

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Pianist Abdullah Ibrahim's Ekaya is more an expression of the South African's musical philosophy than a fixed combo; musicians have come and gone and his collaborators have changed completely since its inception in 1983. Ekaya is not about personalities, but about music born of South Africa and the Afro-American experience. Speaking of Ekaya, Ibrahim states, "Its center is a universal code; regardless of where you go you remain at home." The septet clearly feels right at home with this reworking of previously recorded material, individually and collectively delivering wonderful performances, subdued in tempo but containing a smoldering passion and deep soul.

Belden Bullock's bass motif intro to "Calypso Blues" possesses a feline suaveness in its seductive rhythm, and it's unlikely there has been a more perfectly placed cymbal splash—courtesy of drummer George Gray—since Jimmy Cobb's intervention a minute into Miles Davis' "Freddie Freeloader." This elegant, gently swinging composition sets the template for much of the music that follows; beautifully intertwined wind instruments rise and fall like easy breath, and solos rarely top thirty seconds as each player picks up the thread. Ibrahim's interventions are sparing yet ever so colorful, tying the ensemble together and nudging the narrative along.

The frontline of Cleave Guyton on alto and flute, Keith Loftis on tenor, Andrae Murchison on trombone and Jason W. Marshall on baritone sax, has extensive large ensemble experience, ranging from Ray Charles to the ghost bands of Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, and they bring lush warmth to the arrangements of Ibrahim which echo Ellington and Gil Evans—the latter particularly so on "Sotho Blue"— in their refinement. There is a distinctive choral feel in the fusion of four wind instruments, a reflection of the South African vocal tradition.

The influence of the church on Ibrahim's musical palette is to the fore on the lovely solo piano miniature, "Abide," a nostalgic mood piece, where the pianist touches great emotional depth with minimal expenditure of energy. Similarly, there is hymnal quality to "The Wedding," with Ibrahim sitting out, and the closing number, "Joan Capetown Flower," exudes a slow gospel charm. The only non-original is a slower interpretation of pianist Bud Powell's striking, and altogether atypical "Glass Enclosure." In part, Ibrahim's emotive arrangement pays homage to one of the fathers of modern jazz piano and at the same time perhaps recalls his tragic demise. The extended brass melody has a tremendously anthemic ring to it and is undoubtedly celebratory in tone.

"Star Dance," all gently glowing brass and whispering brushes, purrs like tenor saxophonist Ben Webster interpreting "Stormy Weather" and features a gorgeous flute solo from Guyton. There's an irresistible old-school charm and elegance about Sotho Blue and although it never really catches fire, this is music of genuine soul with every note aimed for the heart, emanating warmth which lingers long after the final note has subsided.

Track Listing: Calypso Minor; Sotho Blue; Abide; Nisa; The Mountain; The Wedding; Glass Enclosure; Star Dance; Joan Capetown Flower (Emerald Bay).

Personnel: Abdullah Ibrahim: grand piano; Belden Bullock: bass; George Gray: drums; Cleave Guyton: alto sax, flute; Keith Loftis: tenor sax;Andrae Murchison: trombone; Jason Marshall: baritone sax.

Title: Sotho Blue | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: Sunnyside Records

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