Abdullah Ibrahim: The Balance

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Unlike other forms of popular music, jazz is a product of where artists are from. Each musician's sound is flavored by their environment and surrounding culture. Louis Armstrong had a joyful New Orleans sound, Dizzy Gillespie had the arch flavor of New York, Chet Baker had a relaxed West Coast feel and Howard McGhee had a tough, ambitious Detroit sound. The influence of one's surroundings is impossible to ignore since improvised music comes from one's imagination.

Pianist-composer Abdullah Ibrahim is from Cape Town, South Africa. As Abdullah told me in 2011 when I last interviewed him, he began playing professionally in 1949 and started his recording career with the Tuxedo Slickers Orchestra in 1954. The South African big-band sound rooted in reeds is still embedded in Abdullah's jazz today, as evidenced on his latest album, The Balance (Gearbox).

Recorded in London at RAK Studios, the album features Abdullah Ibrahim (p); Noah Jackson (b) on tracks 1, 2, 4, 6, 8 and cello on tracks 3 and 10; Alec Dankworth (b) on tracks 3 and 10;Will Terrill (d); Adam Glasser (harmonica) on track 10; Cleave Guyton Jr. (as) on tracks 2, 3, 6, (fl) on tracks 1 and 10, and (piccolo) on tracks 4 and 8; Lance Bryant (ts); Andrae Murchison (tb); and Marshall McDonald (bs).

The Balance is Abdullah's first album in five years, and on the recording he unites two jazz formats—a vibrant, conversational piano trio and a heaving brass group akin to a Charles Mingus ensemble. He also dips into his past and present, and embraces liberation from apartheid, from artistic rigidity and from the inflexibility of tradition. Abdullah is a projector of feelings and experiences that swirl around a dense core of childhood memories.

Prior to 1970, Abdullah was known as Dollar Brand. During my interview, I asked Abdullah about the origin of his former name. “My original last name was Brand," he said. “I was given my nickname while hanging out in Cape Town Harbor as a teen. I’d befriend African-American sailors, who were manning merchant vessels. They gave me a few dollars and the name stuck. I changed my name in the mid-70s when I converted to Islam."

As you listen to The Balance, you hear the many facets of Abdullah's 84 years. There's the gospel of the black church, Indian ragas, European formalism and a stew of jazz genres. All of these create an assortment of moods in the music, from nostalgia and melancholy to jocularity and jubilation. It's no wonder that Abdullah most relates to the music of Duke Ellington. As he noted in 2011, “In the words of our illustrious poet Rumi, “There is only one sound, everything else is echo.”

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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