Duke Ellington’s "discovery" of Abdullah Ibrahim (then Adolf Johannes "Dollar" Brand) in the early sixties was less a case of Western jazz imperialism and more a case of Ellington discovering an authentic tributary of the jazz continuum flowing from its African source.
The South African pianist had already established himself as a musical innovator on his native continent and in Europe (he was living in Switzerland when Ellington came upon him). His 1959 group with Hugh Masekela, the Cape Town Jazz Epistles, had created an original music that was a logical response to their surroundings - taking Xhosa and other tribal chants and melodies and merging them with the contemporary American jazz tradition to form a vibrant alternative. It was a combination that so impressed the twilight Ellington that he arranged for Ibrahim’s first stateside recording. This exposed him to an American jazz community hungry for originality after the cultural exposure of the Civil Rights movement. He has been an internationally renowned musician since.
In the 2002 film Amandla an excellent study of the role of music in the South African struggle Ibrahim appears as a wizened sage at the piano, pecking out sparse African melodies as he reminisces about being exiled from his home by the racist government of apartheid. It was that Ibrahim solitary, reflective that made an appearance at New York’s Blue Note in July.
Though he appeared with a trio, (Beldon Bullock, bass, and George Gray, drums) it was Ibrahim’s show. The rhythm team was there to color and support his explorations. He began the continuous 90-minute set exploring a quiet melody on the Blue Note’s sterling new Bosendorfer piano. It was the first of a montage of fifteen pieces. Often, the unaccompanied introductions emerged into full trio pieces. With no breaks between pieces (and no place even for audience appreciation), the set began with a choppy anticipatory feel - as if this were a sound check rather than a public set.
It wasn’t until five tunes in when the leader began spinning a Xhosa theme that the pastiche effect came to fruition. As Ibrahim accentuated the innate swing of the melody and danced beyond the melody with harmonic variations, the capacity crowd was drawn into his exploratory state of grace. It was as if we had been invited over to hear the master play in his living room.
Perhaps that is as apt a description of the aura that Ibrahim generates as one can give. Unlike his disciple Keith Jarrett, whose physical presence connotes a strenuous athleticism (as if music were a demonic contact sport), Ibrahim’s manner belies a mental work-out. As his 1991 Enja disc Mantra Mode
suggests, this is an internal spiritual quest he’s on. With the discipline of the sage, Ibrahim explored the harmonic possibilities of these fragments of melody, conjuring the musical spirits of his Africa and weaving the alternately simple melodies and chord clusters to create his own distinct jazz tapestry.
And for a few choice moments that evening, Ibrahim acted as a conduit to the sacred.