Tuesday, January 04, 2011
When I was in school in Boston, the main record store was the Harvard Coop. They used to rotate the PA among the various departments and the guy who ran the jazz section (I wish I could remember his name--this was '74-'75) used to derive great pleasure by spinning the Art ensemble, Braxton etc., driving everyone else nuts. I think the first time I heard Abdullah Ibrahim (then still known as Dollar Brand) was in that store when Dave (that was his name!) played 'African Space Program', the big band recording on Enja. Knocked me out. I swiftly picked up whatever I could by the guy, lucking into things like the early Japo LPs ("African Piano", "Ancient Africa"), and "African Sketchbook" on Enja. The Japo releases are especially amazing--beautifully, richly recorded solo piano from '60 and '72, Brand linking theme after gorgeous theme, hammering them relentlessly, almost brutally.
He used repetition in a way very distinct from the Reich, Glass, etc. I was discovering around the same time. I'd later read that in South African music, repetition equaled importance--the more important a series of notes, the more it was repeated, an interesting idea, implying a kind of animist spirit attached to musical phrases. I could listen to the loping bass line of "Bra Joe from Kilimanjaro" forever, now and then. I'd learn later that he had gone to Europe in the early 60s under the aegis of Duke Ellington and began to pick up the Ellington in his playing, a fascinating thing in its own right reflecting back on Ellington's protean mastery of the piano.
The two solo Sackville LPs, "Sangoma" and "African Portraits", form February 1973, continue this trend, powerful, roiling medleys, though with the increasing inclusion of Monk, Waller or Ellington covers and perhaps a tinge of softening. Still marvelous, though. A piece like "Mumsy Weh" (an all-time favorite title!) is just so beguiling in its childlike sense of play.
"Good News from Africa", his first duo recording with Johnny Dyani remains one of my very favorite jazz recordings period, just incredibly heartfelt and rich. I wrote it up for All Music Guide and stand by that assessment. Just a wonderful, wonderful work.
A couple of other enjoyable, if less intense, solo outings recorded around that time but issued several years later: "Memories" on West 54 and "Ode to Duke Ellington" on Inner City. Both include jazz standards while the former also has a couple of pieces by South African cohort Todd Matshikiza. Ibrahim's versions of "A Single Petal of a Rose" and "Drop Me Off in Harlem" are outstanding here. There's also an attractive trio recording on Enja with McBee and Roy Brooks, "The Children of Africa", from early '76, though I think it gives just an inkling of his group projects from upcoming years when the music would smooth out a bit. It also marks, I think, the first appearance of "Ishmael" on record, one of Ibrahim's more beguiling pieces, with melodic lines that slither right up one's spine.
Sometime in '77, we had a benefit concert for Environ. Dave Brubeck played, among others (his kids lived in the apartment section of the loft) and we made enough money for a new piano (It was certainly our most popular event--we were turning people away and had to lock the staircase door as people were climbing the eleven floors trying to get in). The piano was probably the best one among the various lofts and we soon had pianists very desirous to perform there, including the recently emigrated Ibrahim. He played several times, solo and (I think) with a trio that included Cecil McBee and John Betsch. The most memorable, by far, was a solo show one sweltering evening in the summer of '77 where the in-loft temperature had to be around 120. He played, non-stop, for three hours, sweat rolling off his forearms in rivulets--unbelievable. We used to have apple cider and wine available on the side, selling it to make a little extra money. We'd swiftly gone through all the cider and, at concert's end, had only a little wine left. When Ibrahim finished and dragged himself over to that end of the room, he asked for some cider. Told there was only wine available, the devout Muslim hesitated, squirmed and said, "OK, give me some of that poison!"
I remember Betsch remarking on his amazing ability to play just about anything, once, during a recording session, being unhappy with Betsch's work and sitting himself at the drum-set, showing him what he wanted, playing as well as most drummers. I asked Ibrahim once how he was able to play so many instruments (piano, flute, saxophone, cello, drums) so well. He shrugged and said, "They're all instruments." I remarked about the length of the set in such conditions and he replied that, in South Africa, they used to play for three days straight so this was no big deal. An exaggeration, surely, but still, fun to hear.
The photo on the front of "Ode to Duke Ellington" was taken by Ray Ross that tropical night. Ray was circumnavigating his bulk around the piano during the performance and Ibrahim was getting more and more pissed off at his as he snapped away, eventually angrily waving him off. This sent Ray into a snit, of course, muttering how musicians wanted photos but didn't want anyone to take them...Ah, Ray Ross, quite the character...
I guess just before he moved to NYC, he did some sessions in South Africa with some of the key local musicians there, like Basil "Manenberg" Coetzee and Kippie Moeketsi--would love to hear some other work by those fellows. The two LPs, "Black Lightning" and "Soweto", both on Chiaroscuro, are great fun and, I suppose, provide a hint of what the music was like there in the 60s and 70s. I really should hear more township jazz--recs appreciated.
1979 brought the inspired pairing of Ibrahim with Archie Shepp for a lovely recording on Denon as well as his quartet album on Inner City, "Africa--Tears and Laughter". This latter kind of served as a template for his group music for the rest of the decade (perhaps more--I gave up around '86). It's solid and slick and has a conservative tinge that, I think, served him will, commercially speaking, at the time. I liked it a lot back then, recall playing it often and it still has appeal even through the growing sheen. When Ibrahim gets into the guttural grunts during "Ishmael" it's still surprising and welcome. Ibrahim and Dyani reunited for "Echoes from Africa" (Inner City--at the same studio, Tonstudio Bauer)) which, while enjoyable, lacks the intense passion of its predecessor. Still, it has its pleasures, like the deep, pendulum bass line on "Namhanje" and the closing "Zikr" comes close.
A larger band deal on Elektra, "African Marketplace" (December, 1979), brought in electric piano, sounding not very good and again edged toward over-smoothness. Although, I think this was my first hearing of Craig Harris, who did indeed stand out. First appearance, to my knowledge, of "The Wedding" which seemed to show up on every subsequent release. Nice tune, fine Carlos Ward in the lead, generally, but it wore thin after a while. The 80s brought a few more dates that basically recapitulated that recording ("At Montreux" on Inner City) also sprinkling in some Ellington ("Duke's Memories" on String) and ok solo efforts like "South African Sunshine" (Plane), but the sound, as a while, was becoming a bit flaccid to these ears.
He formed Ekaya, generally a septet, in the mid 80s, a popular move, fitting into similar sized bands in NYC like those of Murray and Threadgill, essentially conservative but with the South African melodies providing some uniqueness. I caught them at Sweet Basil's once around that time and my main recollection is enjoying Dick Griffin greatly but being a bit bored by everything else. People liked it though and, in the twilight of the apartheid regime in SA, he became something of a cultural ambassador, though I'm afraid the music suffered for it. Somewhere around this time, I saw him at Carnegie Recital Hall--pretty big time for a fellow who was playing for the door at lofts ten years earlier and all props to him, but the music had mellowed to a point where crowds who would've never ventured below 14th St. back then could sit and enjoy it in suits and furs.
But, for a while, Ibrahim created some incredibly powerful work, so thanks to him. Allah-O-Akbar.