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Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya: Sotho Blue

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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The music of pianist Abdullah Ibrahim has lit up the world, shining brightly in the darkest recesses of the mind for decades. It has sung proud through the apartheid era, helping to clench the fist of protest tighter and the voice of human freedom sing louder. Now that the walls of segregation (at least in South Africa) have come tumbling down, Ibrahim's elementally beautiful melodies have begun to sound more tempered, his husky harmonies more bronzed, glowing with burnished colors. A master of delivering exquisite timbers and aural textures, Ibrahim has created music that has a diaphanous swagger, billowing like a hushed wind that kidnaps the beguiled soul, inviting it on an unforgettable journey.

It is impossible to force the hand of someone as masterful as Ibrahim. His art flows like a force of nature, just as the music of Duke Ellington or Charles Mingus did. On Sotho Blue, he plays an almost minimal role as pianist, yet his spirit hovers about the music and, when the ivory keys do trinkle at his near-spiritual touch, the chords that Ibrahim strikes have a gravitas that anchors the music in empirical reality, echoing like some mystical Hymn of the Universe. Like a proverbial fire on the mountain, "The Mountain" begins to unfold, spiraling upwards as might music with a vorticist force. The indigo swagger of "Sotho Blue"—recreated here with burgeoning horns, and offset by contrapuntally darkening piano twists and turns, as it makes its way down some dusty avenue in fading light—sends grimy scraps swirling about the bottoms of dancing flaps of trousers and shuffling feet.

"Abide," with its fervor and eyes wide shut, becomes the glue of a prayer, Ibrahim's hands flurrying across the keyboard in sensuous swirls. The beauteous narrative of "Nisa" tumbles down with bronzed horns and spry piano, as does the lonely glow of "Calypso Blue." The incredible colors suggested by Cleave Guyton's alto saxophone and flute, melded with the grumble of Jason W. Marshall's baritone saxophone, and sewn together by tenor saxophonist Keith Loftis and trombonist Andrae Murchison, go deep into the inner recesses of the mind. There, the purring of the glowing horns creates fresh aural memorabilia. The ingenuity with which Ibrahim has divined their tone and color awakens the spirit of legendary Ellington bands.

"Glass Dance"—the only music not from Ibrahim's pen but, in fact, from an early mentor, Bud Powell—gets suitably reverential treatment, as Ibrahim shreds the harmony, making it new, while retaining its distinctive Powell groove. Here, Ibrahim shows himself to be a true master of discerning the true rhythms hidden in melody, as he gently rocks it, swing and shuffling it like the vibrations hidden in its glacial image.

Nothing that Ibrahim offers in terms of music fails to touch the deepest recesses of the human soul, and the music of Ekaya, on Sotho Blue, is no exception.

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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