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Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya: Sotho Blue

Dan McClenaghan By

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The pianist's name was Dollar Brand. He came out of a nascent South African jazz scene in 1959 with The Jazz Epistles, a group that included trumpeter Hugh Masekela. Though his profile has never reached Masekela-like heights—the trumpeter's fame shot sky high with a huge number one pop chart hit in 1968, "Grazin' in the Grass"—Dollar Brand, now known as Abdullah Ibrahim, has been creating vibrant jazz infused with African folk hues and rhythms for more than a half century.

On Sotho Blue, Ibrahim, with his mid-sized Ekaya ensemble, revisits a collection of his classic tunes, reinterpreting and revitalizing eight of his better-known compositions, and revisiting Bud Powell's "Glass Enclosure."

Ibrahim has recorded much solo work, as well as expansive projects with large ensembles, but his Ekaya, a septet featuring three reeds, a trombone and the piano/bass/drums rhythm section, is an especially expressive vehicle for the pianist's artistry, with its beautifully tangy harmonies, soulful soloing, and the leader's crystalline piano declarations that at times bring to mind Thelonious Monk, one of Ibrahim's early influences.

The set's opener, "Calypso Minor," struts in a stealth mode, with a deliberate rhythmic foundation for tenor sax and trombone ruminations, followed by the lively, bearish grumble of the baritone saxophone that gives way to the bird trills of the flute. Throughout, Ibrahim's presence chimes to the surface of the ensemble sound.

The title tune introduces a melancholy mood, like a piece from a soundtrack of a film concerning dark themes. "Abide" is the lone solo vehicle on the set, featuring Ibrahim in a spare and contemplative mindset, leading into the ebullient and gregarious "Nisa."

"The Wedding" has a feeling of restrained celebration, with some of the sweetest horn harmony on the set. Bud Powell's "Glass Enclosure" features sparklingly lovely piano solos inserted between the horn interludes.

The CD closes out with Ibrahim's "Joan Capetown Flower (Emerald Bay)." Like much of the set, it exudes a sense of contentment of peace, showcasing Cleave Guyton's exquisite alto sax sound, rounding out an excellent outing by Abdullah Ibrahim and Ekaya.

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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