Of course, this big band is German, but apparently it doesn’t matter. The NDR big band has clearly studied mid-60’s examples like the Mel Lewis-Thad Jones Orchestra and the Clarke-Boland Big Band, and emulated their staccato snap, their finely-oiled interplay, and - most of all - an indestructible rhythm section headed by a drummer who works like a conductor. The principle of swing, then, is not a problem. But it is the aesthetic challenge included in this meeting that proves most difficult, and is overcome so triumphantly. Ibrahim’s compositions included here - more or less old standards from his songbook (including a sprawling, raucous, sixteen minute "African Market") - offer more than out and out 4/4 swing, and usually do that by offering less. Ibrahim, like Thelonious Monk, Randy Weston, Don Pullen and all of Duke Ellington’s favorite chillun’, not only gots rhythm, but the brother knows how to let it breathe. There is a beauty in its understatement and the unexpected ways they slip themselves around it. What the NDR band accomplishes during this stirring CD is twofold - to both accept Ibrahim’s music on its own, most African terms, and to offer it the virtue of a seemingly limitless variety of voicings, cross-rhythms, and its power to layer melody with enough texture to express its pulsing, haunting, keening cry for life.
I wrote down two full pages of highlights in the course of listening to this album, full of odd musings like "half expect to hear Ms. Mahalia Jackson jump out and join the congregation," or "the looming that lingers," or "muted brass pushed to its breaking point, collapsing in smears and capped-off notes, and rhythm rising above it all." But in the end, a lengthy catalogue of such moments feels entirely inappropriate; from the wailing Gospel-tinged screamers to the winding Nile River brooders, each track has a tremendous amount to offer. After the final cadenza of this cathartic live show, one has that tingling post-concert excitement that is rarely, if ever, retained on record. Much credit should be given to the audio engineers who captured these sounds, as the presence of the instruments positively glows, in a way that many studio albums do not. Jubilation this well recorded is meant to be savored, so don’t be afraid to wake the neighbors, parents, or roommates with its glory swinging at full volume. If this is the sound of borders breaking, then enjoy the exhilaration, the trepidation, and the pulsing attraction.