To Turn the Key In the Lock

Today, celebrating the 80th birthday of the finest and most important people’s musician of the African continent, South African composer, pianist, bandleader, educator, Abdullah ibrahim, I pull to this blog archival posts from the Mantra Modes blog. This article highlights my favorite of his many recordings. I have added at the end a note about his record from last year, Musashi.

(1999/2014) Over the course of a recording career that will surpass four decades at the dawning of the new century, Abdullah Ibrahim has gifted the world with a singular and distinguished discography. (62 records as of this note being written in 1999). As a musician of the people, or as a creative improvisor, or as a artist in the African tradition, this portfolio is unique among international artists in the modern era of recordings. Yet, it is important to note that this tangible documentation is merely the tip of the artist’s gift, most of which has been directly transmitted via performances and his work with musicians, (especially younger ones).

Ask anyone who has been blessed by that life-moving experience at a concert or ‘gig’, or come into tune and played with Ibrahim about the impact of his artistry.

The 62 records, of which thirty or so are currently available, vary in quality. Yes: they range from the very good to the very fine to the exceptional. No recording is not the issue of the artist’s integrity and devotion.

In each decade Ibrahim has offered up at least one signal offering for that decade, and sometimes he’s offered up several. There are no missteps at all. Defects in recording quality, or musicianship are few, and nowhere are they enough to undermine the artistic moment. The pianist and composer is one of a literal handful who’s recorded documentation has obtained this level of consistent high quality. And, perhaps, only his noble precedents, Duke and Monk, composed modern songs of African tradition more generously.

Mostly, as you experience these records over time, the familiar gets transmogrified and retransmitted in an opus designed to bring joy, then to sympathize with and quicken the soulful listener. Every single record will reward the sensitive attention, evoke one’s ‘receptivity’. This is their true aim.

I’d like to suggest a few initial doorways to go through. They all lead home should you get turned on. If this happens, then proceed to the recordings which lead to the center of this music, as far its documentation. Let me offer five suggestions for those initial doorways and then suggest, from there, three further routes directly into the center of this artistic wellspring.

First is AFRICAN RIVER, the third Ekaya recording, and, perhaps, the most purely ingratiating of the ensemble dates.
Second is AFRICAN MARKETPLACE, similarly celebratory, more rocking, full of zest.
Third is CAPETOWN FLOWERS, a trio date bursting with attractive melodies and concise essays. (As an added extra it gives the trio take on “Joan”, a composition from AFRICAN RIVER.)
Fourth is AFRICAN DAWN, likewise a concise solo piano review of several favored themes, as well as offering versions of compositions by essential ancestral precedents, Monk and Ellington.

Finally, there is the compilation THE MOUNTAIN, made up of most of the first two Ekaya dates. Ekaya is the very fine ensemble Ibrahim regularly assembles to etch little big band African music.

With this ‘ear hold’ on the mountain, you, the aware listener, are in a position to go where your hearing will take you! It should lead via several route deeper into this stream of music!

To proceed deeper into the sounds, first, and foremost, is the route through the South African ensemble recordings. Start with the essential group dates made with Kippie Moketsi in 1960 and reissued as a part of the compilation, (JAZZ IN AFRICA VOL.1; CAMDEN 1004) and his debut under his own name, DOLLAR BRAND PLAYS SPHERE JAZZ, reissued with the exception of one song on BLUES FOR A HIP KING.

This route naturally leads through the later South African ensemble dates reissued as CDs first on Kaz and then on Camden (in the UK.) This route includes MANTRA MODES, the first South African date after the artist returned home, as well as his first recording made with South African musicians after his return to South Africa, MADE IN SOUTH AFRICA TOWNSHIP – ONE MORE TIME. (note-2014-nowadays a rarity.)

The second route goes through the highlights of the Enja/Tiptoe dates which branch upward from the first four suggestions. These include the essential duo dates with Johnny Mbizo Dyani, GOOD NEWS FROM AFRICA and AFRICAN ECHOES; and more from Ekaya, NO FEAR, NO DIE, and MINDIF; and the rocking live date, SOUTH AFRICA. ZIMBABWE, an intense quartet moment featuring alto saxophonist and flautist Carlos Ward is essential and highlight of the discography.

Lastly is a direct route via the famous solo piano dates, sessions full of invigorating alchemical playing. These invoke both ritual realities as well as the innovative syncretism that fuses African tradition and the mighty ancestral rivers of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. Their vortex is entered best through AFRICAN PIANO, from the famous live sets recorded at the Jazzhus Monmartre in 1968. Next, proceed through the two Sackville dates and the ‘Felli Farm’ reissue, STANDARDS, ODE TO DUKE ELLINGTON, and, if you can find it, the Plainesphere date, AUTOBIOGRAPHY, (a high point,) reissued in Japan on Denon. The solo piano dates are all full of bright moments, magic and, graced with what could be described as the ebullience of the ancient African church.

I’d like to mention one other record. It is essential even as it stands apart from the discography as a singularly evocative, deeply personal moment. Recorded after Abdullah returned from 15 years in self-exile, it is a bittersweet celebration of loss and gain. KNYSNA BLUE showcases the artist as a one man band, yet it is the atmospheric and deeply revelatory title track with its (almost) impossibly affecting narration that reminds the listener of what is at stake in this peoples’ music. It is a shout out of hope aimed into the future. What is made the stake is, as Abdullah Ibrahim titled one of his compositions, simple yet starkly rendered on this profound record: ‘life is for the living, death is for us all’. Perhaps it is KNYSA BLUE that is the one key to turn after your heart has been stirred deeply…when you’ve experienced your own moment of Cape Town musical magic.

released 29 April 2014

Abdullah Ibrahim – piano, flute, vocals
Cleave Guyton – flute, clarinet, saxophones
Eugen Bazijan – cello
Scott Roller – cello

A new listener would do just fine to start with Ibrahim’s most recent record. (Sunnyside download at Bandcamp) The small ensemble ambience is keyed to a pair of cellos and flute, along with piano and voice. Unique to his discography, the new record is elegiac and gemlike. It’s beautiful, but, then, it is about beauty, and about the beauty that lasts, and is everlasting.

Approach with receptivity and be engaged! Have fun. Be moved. May God will it so for you; for all peoples.

iTunes | Amazon

If you have any suggestions or corrections, feel free to contact me. Your input is appreciated.

I am indebted to Lars Rasmussen, author of Abdullah Ibrahim: A Discography. His comprehensive discography is the backbone to this resource. (More information is at the publisher’s Booktrader web site. There you will find absolutely essential resources about South African music and musicians.) His discography is an essential adjunct to a deep engagement with this music; highly recommended. My guide is dedicated to Lars Rasmussen. Thanks, man!

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