Living legend Abdullah Ibrahim, at age 84, isn’t slowing down much in 2019. Already this year the South African pianist and composer was honored as an NEA Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, and now he releases The Balance, his first new album in four years. It’s a treat from top to bottom for fans of straight-ahead, bop and other modern jazz styles, by big band as well as solo piano, plus South African styles like high life and township.
Ibrahim, born Adolph Johannes Brand in 1934 in Cape Town, has played music basically all his life. As Dollar Brand, he and his septet the Jazz Epistles, formed in 1959 and including Hugh Masekela on trumpet, recorded the first jazz album by South African musicians. Since then he has played with everyone from Duke Ellington to John Coltrane, Max Roach and Ornette Coleman. His anti-apartheid anthem “Mannenberg” is South Africa’s unofficial national anthem, and he performed at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration, where Mandela referred to him as “our Mozart.”
This new album of nine Ibrahim compositions and one Thelonius Monk cover was recorded with his long-time group Ekaya over the course of one day in London in November 2018. It’s a dream ensemble with a plethora of strong players. The rhythm section in addition to Ibrahim on piano is Noah Jackson on bass and Will Terrill on drums; Alec Dankworth fills in on bass when Jackson plays cello on a couple of tracks. The killer horn section is Lance Bryant on tenor, Marshall McDonald on bari sax, Andrae Murchison trombone and Cleave Guyton on alto sax, flute and piccolo. You don’t hear enough flute on modern jazz records these days, let alone piccolo! And those top-end instruments are nicely juxtaposed with the low sounds from bari and ‘bone, as we’ll see.
Up front I have to tip the hat to the three solo piano pieces. “Devotion” is lovely spiritual jazz, and on both ballads “ZB2” and “Tonegawa” we hear major echoes of both Monk and Ellington. My favorite of the three is “Tonegawa,” which highlights both Ibrahim’s percussive right hand and his lyrical touch with the left, rather an inversion of expectations; this one dwindles to a pensive, bittersweet denoument that leads into a lovely full band ballad, “Song For Sathima,” dedicated to his late wife, the singer and composer Sathima Bea Benjamin.
None of these pieces are particularly long for a modern jazz album (or World Music, for that matter), so the solos tend to be short and to the point. Bryant has a powerful tenor solo on “Sathima,” which begins with a beautiful piano intro and duet choruses by bari-alto and trombone-tenor combos for a lot of rich harmonic textures. It also has just a lovely melody, as you’ll see in this solo piano performance live in studio:
Ibrahim and crew give Monk’s “Skippy” a full, swinging ensemble treatment highlighted by a long piccolo solo, juxtaposed against comping baritone and trombone. Similarly, flute is set against the baritone and trombone on the Ellington-inspired slow blues “Dreamtime” that opens the album, where Jackson’s bass and Terrill’s subtle brushwork stand out. There’s a stirring baritone sax chorus in the mid-tempo blues “Nisa” which also features great melodic harmonies from alto, bari and trombone.
“Jabula” is a triumphant uptempo slice of township jazz with touches of both Monk and Ellington in Ibrahim’s solo section; and “Tuang Guru” is a stirring blend of African, bop and post-bop stylings, with more of that soaring piccolo and a racing rhythm posted by the bass and hi-hat. The whole affair wraps up with the title tune, which draws on the panoply of styles that Ibrahim has at his fingertips including gospel touches, with unexpected textures from harmonica, flute and cello.
Coming out just halfway through 2019, The Balance is going to be on a lot of honors lists, I guarantee it. This is high-order music from a master with a big heart, a far-reaching vision and a lifetime of experience to draw on.
(Gearbox Records, 2019)