Jazz Epistles Cover

JazzTimes 10: Essential Dollar Brand/Abdullah Ibrahim Recordings

22 Aug 2019

The man once known as Adolphus “Dollar” Brand took several decades, countries, and even incarnations of himself to develop the style that is now immediately identifiable as his own. He assimilated classical music from Bach to Debussy, ragtime, swing and bebop (Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk remain his indelible idols), the worship music of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (his first teacher). He fused them, in increasingly complex and overt ways, with South African musical traditions past and present. If what he arrived at is what his former music director, trombonist Horace Alexander Young, accurately calls “holistic, contemplative improvisational jazz music of the piano,” it only arose after he’d mastered the many nuances of the jazz idiom. Here are 10 pieces, in chronological order, that document that journey.


1. The Jazz Epistles: “Scullery Department” (The Complete Recordings; Trunk, 2014 [originally recorded January 22, 1960])

Already subversive in their very existence, the Jazz Epistles—South Africa’s first significant modern jazz ensemble—made “Scullery Department,” from their trailblazing debut LP Verse 1, their clandestine protest against apartheid. The tune (by alto saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi) bears a more-than-passing resemblance to Oscar Pettiford’s “Bohemia After Dark,” but it also bears the rhythmic hallmarks of what would soon be called Afro-jazz, especially in the interlocking polyrhythms of its opening theme (with Brand, bassist Johnny Gertze, and drummer Makaya Ntshoko playing in three and the horns in four). Brand takes the last solo, which impressively threads the needle between the two time signatures and also displays his early debt to Thelonious Monk in both voicings and phrasing. It’s a benchmark of South African jazz. Abdullah Ibrahim/Dollar Brand’s legacy begins here.


2. Dollar Brand Trio: “The Stride” (Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio; Reprise, 1964)

Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio;Although it took the cajoling of Brand’s wife (singer Bea Benjamin) to get Duke Ellington out to hear him play in Switzerland, it’s immediately apparent what the jazz great heard in the young upstart exile. “The Stride,” the closing track from Brand’s debut LP (for which Ellington organized the session at his Reprise label), contains all the hallmarks of the pianist’s early sound. His debts to Ellington, Monk, and the AME church are readily apparent, as are his instantly memorable but mysterious melodies and his percussive force. It doesn’t take long for Brand’s originality to emerge, either: About 90 seconds in comes a bout of free-time clattering where the Monk and gospel influences fragment into something between counterpoint and carefully choreographed synergy courtesy of the same rhythm section as the Epistles’: Brand, Gertze, and Ntshoko. Then on the reprise come those polyrhythms again, sly but also pointed like a dagger to the ribs.


3. Dollar Brand: “Salaam-Peace-Hamba Kahle” (African Sketchbook; Enja, 1969)

African SketchbookBrand’s solo concerts tend to run together as one long performance, even as he shifts from one composition or improvisation to the next. You need to experience a full set to hear how he constructs an arc across it. In the case of 1969’s African Sketchbook, recorded in Switzerland, the arc begins and ends with the preternatural calm of “Salaam-Peace-Hamba Kahle.” As the title suggests, it was composed shortly after Brand’s conversion to Islam. (He had already taken the Muslim name of Abdullah Ibrahim, though he would continue performing as Dollar Brand through the early 1980s.) The pieces coming between these two bookends are often fraught and emotionally intense, but “Salaam-Peace-Hamba Kahle” suggests the new and peaceful center that Brand’s spiritual conversion had brought to his life and consciousness. It is also a glimpse of the melodic tenderness that would in the coming years become the primary staple of his aesthetic.


4. Dollar Brand: “Mannenberg” (a.k.a. “Cape Town Fringe”) (Cape Town Fringe; Chiaroscuro, 1977 [originally recorded June 1974])

Cape Town Fringe; Chiaroscuro, 1977 For better or for worse, “Mannenberg” is the piece for which Abdullah Ibrahim will be remembered. Often described as “bittersweet,” this anthem of apartheid resistance is far more sweet than bitter; it’s a song of hope, not anguish. Its beautiful, instantly memorable hook and rolling gospel-spiked groove would probably have been enough to elevate “Mannenberg” (released in the United States as “Cape Town Fringe” and frequently still known as such here—although Brand named it for a Cape Town township that was a hotbed of resistance) to anthemic status. Brand’s limber but tinny piano amplifies that feeling. But the tune is also a feature for tenor saxophonist Basil Coetzee, whose long solo bursts with such life and warmth and humanity that he was nicknamed “Mannenberg” for the rest of his life. Not surprisingly, Ibrahim would continue performing and recording his most famous composition; it even made a resplendent appearance during the inauguration festivities of president Nelson Mandela.


5. Dollar Brand: “Jabulani (Joy)” (The Journey; Chiaroscuro, 1977)

The JourneyAbdullah Ibrahim (whose name had begun by this time to appear along with the Dollar Brand moniker) credits Don Cherry with steering him toward a return to his African folk roots in the 1970s. If The Journey is any indication, Cherry (who appears on the album) also steered him toward the avant-garde. After articulating the highly celebratory tune—packaged in one of Brand’s most elegant arrangements—his nonet detonates into atonal free-blowing. Baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, followed by Cherry, do characteristically impassioned, penetrating work. So do alto saxophonists Talib Kibwe and Carlos Ward, as well as Ibrahim in a surprise turn on soprano, with the horns all appearing in counterpoint with the rhythm section at the song’s climax. The real tour-de-force improvisation on “Jabulani,” however, is probably that of South African bassist Johnny Akhir Dyani, who slips in and out of accents and personae (and tempi, and registers) with the versatility of Meryl Streep. Like “Mannenberg,” “Jabulani” has become part of Ibrahim’s permanent repertoire, receiving a revisitation on his 2019 album The Balance.


6. Abdullah Ibrahim: “Just You, Just Me” (African Dawn; Enja, 1982)

African DawnBy the time of 1982’s solo outing African Dawn, “Dollar Brand” had evaporated entirely from the billing. Ibrahim was Ibrahim, and though then as now he primarily focused on his own compositions, he still had an affection for the standard repertoire. There’s a sly pleasure behind the somewhat grim determination of Ibrahim’s playing on Jesse Greer’s “Just You, Just Me,” the latter being constantly brought home with his hammerlike insistence on a bass drone. Still, he briefly lets the mask slip in the gleeful center of the tune, swinging away with references to stride in the rhythm and to gospel in the harmony. The dark drone quickly reasserts itself, but Ibrahim continues to hint here and there that he’s enjoying himself. His closing, an Ellingtonian trill, finally gives the game away.


7. Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya: “Mandela” (Water From an Ancient Well; BlackHawk, 1986)

Water From An Ancient WellIbrahim first formed his septet Ekaya in 1983 with Cecil McBee on bass; by this second recording, David Williams had taken over the bass chair. Lest it be lost in his heavy reserves of South African tradition and Monk-inspired quirky syncopation, Ibrahim could still swing as hard as anyone in jazz. Ekaya’s four-horn, little-big-band format was a fantastic one for showing off that capability, and one can almost see dancers whirling to the still-folk-steeped tribute to then-jailed Nelson Mandela. There are beautiful, knowing solos by all four horns: baritone saxophonist Charles Davis, trombonist Dick Griffin, tenor saxophonist Ricky Ford, and alto saxophonist Carlos Ward. Ibrahim himself stays in the background, but his smart, swinging fills are nonetheless difficult to miss.


8. Abdullah Ibrahim Trio and String Orchestra: “Tsakwe” (African Suite; Tiptoe, 1998)

African SuiteIbrahim’s piano trio, featuring bassist Belden Bullock and drummer George Gray, is at the center of his African Suite. That center, however, is surrounded by a lush 17-piece string orchestra (featuring members of the Youth Orchestra of the European Community). It’s one of Ibrahim’s most affecting works, with “Tsakwe” a particularly stunning example. Its tension is already ratcheted up high with Ibrahim’s very first chord, played against Gray’s conga-like drum line and subtle Bullock bass. Once the strings enter, the tension goes from high to unbearable—and only intensifies through the scary, noir-ish performance. Ibrahim keeps a light touch, just enough commentary to move things along. Even his eventual improvisation, less than a minute long, seems purpose-built to accelerate. This high drama is a rare element in Ibrahim’s late catalogue, but an extraordinarily well-designed and well-executed one.


9. Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya: “The Wedding” (Sotho Blue; Sunnyside, 2010)

Sotho BlueLike his heroes Monk and Ellington, Ibrahim puts as much of himself into revisiting and revitalizing the tunes in his existing book as he does into composing new material. “The Wedding” was first recorded in 1975 and has surely been around for longer, appearing in myriad variations and arrangements. But there’s something irresistible in this plainspoken setting for Cleave Guyton, Ekaya’s longtime alto saxophonist. The band’s other horns act as his background, Ibrahim and the rhythm section laying out entirely. There is no improvisation, just Guyton laying out the written melody, with an effect of intimacy, warmth, and unadulterated, beautiful sentiment. Even without Ibrahim’s being audibly present, this take on “The Wedding” is as firm a reminder of any of his terrific musical gifts.


10. Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya: “Dreamtime” (The Balance; Gearbox, 2019)

The BalanceA “new” composition (which Ibrahim actually began performing in 2012, but didn’t record until now), “Dreamtime,” like “The Wedding,” features Cleave Guyton on an unimprovised lead. The context, however, is completely different. Guyton plays flute, not alto, for one thing; for another, the piece is moody and mysterious. And while Guyton still doesn’t improvise, Ibrahim does, in short, subtle phrases that are more like obbligati than fully formed improvisational lines. Apart from its sophistication, both compositional and emotional, it’s hard to say anything with certainty about meaning or evocation in “Dreamtime”; the very idea of dreams has multiple layers of meaning in Ibrahim’s culture and in his music. This opening track of The Balance sets a similarly multilayered tone: ephemeral, ambiguous, strange, and beautiful.


This article was originally written for JazzTimes by Michael J. West