Probably the most important member of South Africa's jazz elite, pianist Abdullah Ibrahim certainly wasted no time forging alliances after his 1962 departure from his homeland. Although he hit it off right away with Duke Ellington, for example, resulting in the 1963 date Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio
, he has always made a point of keeping his own nuclei intact and often bereft of outright star power. (Note: Dollar Brand was his name until he converted to Islam in 1968.)
The pianist's playing owes obvious debts to Ellington and Monk, reflected in big-picture vision, extended compositional approach, and perky sense of timing. But there are other debts which may not be so readily apparent to the average mainstream jazz fan: a heart-felt investment in old-school gospel warmth, for example, and a continuing search for African roots (specifically aimed at South Africa, which has the continent's longest and most idiosyncratic jazz tradition). The word "Africa" and "African" appear repeatedly in album titles, along with less direct references. Fortunately his output has been prodigious and quite varied, so there's no shortage of raw material, although parts of it may be hard to find in the marketplace.
The two records under consideration today are Enja reissues of Cape Town Revisited, a trio date recorded live in December of 1997; and African Suite, an orchestra plus trio outing from 1998. They illustrate as aptly as any the pianist's natural yet wide-ranging sound. But if you had to ask me, Cape Town Revisited is as essential as African Suite is dispensable, which is very, so tuck that advice in your hat.
Abdullah Ibrahim Trio
Cape Town Revisited
As is Ibrahim's tendency on live recordings, recently reflected in last year's African Magic , the music tends to evolve over time through a series of smaller units. In this case the average track length is four minutes, which means things change a lot; but that's a superficial analysis because Ibrahim's trio does a wonderful job connecting everything together. (Trumpeter Feya Faku guests on three tracks, mixed too far to the front but still a worthy addition to the group.)
The most dramatic example of Ibrahim's tendency to assemble suite-like collections is "Cape Town to Congo Square," which comes in three units spaced early on the record. The suite draws its name from the connections between New Orleans and Cape Town, something that's obvious to South African jazz players but may be a discovery for outsiders. (Gospel is a very big thing in South Africa.)
The first part features very active snare drumming by George Gray, proving old debts to the marching band tradition and the unstoppable momentum of New Orleans. But Ibrahim's piano, however funky it may become, also radiates a sense of carefree joy and celebration, tribute, and accessible, open harmonic progression. The suite is well received, especially upon its return, with rumbling, blocky bass patterns leading up to a bluesy reprise of what has become one of the most memorable cadences in the history of South African jazz.
Other highlights include the old school backbeat of "Soweto," the reduced solemnity of "The Wedding," and the fresh perk of "Someday Soon Sweet Samba." But there's really no sense in breaking up the flow as Cape Town Revisited winds its way along.
This is one of the warmest, most heartfelt and reverberant records ever made in South Africa.
The idea for this record must have come from some implied connections to Ellington and symphonic music, which is fair enough given Ibrahim's expansive tendencies, both stylistically and compositionally, in smaller group settings. And an orchestra has great potential to bring out the colors in more detail than is possible in, say, a trio. But unfortunately the colors on this record are hardly vibrant; it takes Ibrahim's compositions and render than bigger in scale without making them any bigger in scope.
It's important to pause here to recognize connections with Third Stream music and note that it's always a risk to orchestrate jazz. Even though it's been done a hundred times before, there's no guarantee that expanding a trio to a group this size (23 players) is going to work. And for what it's worth, some ears probably would appreciate this music more than my own, especially if they are more tolerant to emotional and musical redundancy. Perhaps there is something to the claim that Liszt and late Beethoven weave their own strands in Abdullah Ibrahim's music.