Establishing a distinctive sound on an instrument is a truly demanding task. Taking the innovations of generations of musicians and channeling these lessons learned into new concepts has become the ultimate goal of every musician. Sometimes unique circumstances help truly gifted artists to evolve, taking in influences from outside sources and native ones.
Master pianist Abdullah Ibrahim is one of South Africa’s most celebrated musicians and a wonderful example of a musician who combined the spirit of his homeland’s distinctive musical tradition with his pursuit of jazz mastery, the music that was introduced to him by seamen from the United States. Ibrahim’s legendary performing career spans more than half a century, from his time in the 1950s in Apartheid South Africa, followed by his exile in Europe, and culminating in his triumphant return to his liberated homeland, all the while performing his elegant spiritual blend of jazz and South African music.
Ibrahim has recorded in a multitude of settings, from solo and small ensembles to leading big bands and orchestras. His new recording Mukashi features the 79 year old legend in various ensemble amalgamations with woodwind specialist Cleave Guyton and cellists Eugen Bazijan and Scott Roller for a spare but captivating collection of original material.
The title Mukashi is a Japanese word meaning “once upon a time.” Ibrahim’s pronounced fascination with Japanese culture began with his studies in martial arts and has continued to this day. Many of Ibrahim’s projects have been self-referential and Mukashi is no different. Each composition is a piece of Ibrahim or a story that he wants to tell.
What makes this recording so special is the singular effect that the music has when it is arranged for this ensemble. Ibrahim’s music is always stately but with the cellos and woodwinds the music takes on a texture closer to that of chamber music.
The musicians involved are all talented and eclectic performers who are at ease in multiple genres, including jazz and classical. Woodwind specialist Cleave Guyton has been a well-respected collaborator for many and a member of Ibrahim’s Ekaya ensemble for a number of years. German based cellists Eugen Bazijan and Scott Roller, the former originally from the Ukraine and the latter from the United States, are both involved in diverse projects from classical and folk to new music and jazz.
The serene preface “Mukashi” begins the program leading to the beautiful flute lead “Dream Time.” There is a nostalgic solo take on the Pelosi and Towers composition “The Stars Will Remember.” Two Ibrahim classic compositions - “Serenity” and “Peace” – featuring Guyton’s moving flute bookmark the clarinet spotlight “Mississippi.” The tranquil “Matzikama” leads to Ibrahim’s take on Lange and Trapani’s “Cara Mia” which is done as an exquisite piano solo.
“Root” is another solo feature, which is followed by a flute and piano duo on “Trace Elements For Monk.” The next three pieces form a short suite entitled “Krotoa” (about the dealings of a young Khoi girl with the first European settlers) in three parts, “Crystal Clear,” “Devotion” and “Endurance.” “In the Evening” has a noirish tone set by its winding melody shared between clarinet and cellos, while “Essence” is a striking solo meditation. The program ends with an uplifting piece for Guyton’s bright flute and Ibrahim’s spare piano.
Any time Abdullah Ibrahim releases a recording it is an event. Mukashi deserves additional praise, as it is a textural departure from Ibrahim’s other notable releases and a true pleasure to hear.