South Africa: Two Abdullah Ibrahim Reissues
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.
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.
Ibrahim and his trio (which includes bassist Belden Bullock and drummer George Gray) form the nucleus of this outing, but as you would expect the piano and drums stand out most prominently. The whole thing was thoroughly arranged and produced by Daniel Schnyder, with help of 20 string players picked from the Youth Orchestra of the European Community. The orchestra serves three roles: it supports the piano when Ibrahim takes center stage with melodies, it carries themes and sub-themes on its own, and it serves as a secondary persona with whom Ibrahim can trade commentary.
To pick a noteworthy example, "Ishmael" carries a lilting minor melody barely over the edge into clave land, staying near but not homing directly into North African styles. This piece features the most interaction between Ibrahim and the orchestra, though the latter tends to be rhythymically stifling. "The Call," two tracks later, is mired hopelessly in woozy orchestral sentiment, to the point where the emotional content is so predictable it becomes thoroughly redundant. Taking Ibrahim and his trio out of the equation, the orchestra-only "Blanton" is so busy it loses any organic feel.
The piano solo piece "Aspen" puts things in the right hands, but it's pretty clear that Ibrahim is trying to sound orchestral in the way he voices chords and overlays textures. By the time the sappy, cliche-ridden closing piece at the end of the record comes through, you're more than ready to hit stop and change the disc. Honesty is the best policy with material like this: skip this record and do Cape Town Revisited instead. No question about that.
Tracks and Personnel:
Cape Town Revisited
Tracks: 1. Damara Blue 2. Someday Soon Sweet Samba 3. Cape Town to Congo Square [1st Movement]: African Street Parade 4. Cape Town to Congo Square [2nd Movement]: District Six Carnival 5. Song for Sathima 6. Cape Town to Congo Square [3rd Movement]: Too-Kah 7. Tintinyana 8. Tuang Guru 9. Eleventh Hour 10. Water from an Ancient Well 11. Tsakwe-Royal Blue 12. Soweto 13. Mountain 14. Wedding 15. Barakaat [The Blessing]
Personnel: Abdullah Ibrahim: piano; Marcus McLaurine: bass; George Gray: drums. Guest Feya Faku: trumpet (7,11,12).
Tracks: 1. Mindif 2. Ishmael 3. Tsakwe 4. Call 5. Damara Blue 6. Wedding 7. Blanton (Orchestra Only) 8. Aspen (Piano Solo) 9. Barakaat 10. Tintinyana 11. Mountain of the Night
Personnel: Abdullah Ibrahim: piano; Belden Bullock: bass; George Gray: drums. With a string orchestra from members of the Youth Orchestra of the European Community. Arranged and produced by Daniel Schnyder.