Abdullah Ibrahim

Newly-Christened NEA Jazz Master Abdullah Ibrahim Strikes ‘The Balance’: Premiere

12 Jun 2019

The material on The Balance may be new to listeners – including the title track, premiering exclusively below – but it’s very familiar to veteran pianist and newly christened NEA Jazz Master Abdullah Ibrahim on his first new album in five years.

“We’ve been playing this music for so long,” the South African-born Ibrahim, referring to his longtime band Ekaya, tells Billboard. “I was just trying to find a label that was sympathetic for what we’re doing at this moment, all these great musicians with me.” Ibrahim found that home in Britain’s Gearbox Records, and after singing the deal he and Ekaya recorded The Balance in London in just one day. “We’ve been playing and playing the music for some time in concert,” Ibrahim says, “so the band was on target and ready. There were a few changes, of course, but these were mostly minor adjustments. We walked into the studio and it took us about half an hour, 45 minutes to get accustomed to the room. We had the one day, and we made it with an hour and a half to spare.”

The Balance combines full-band performances with improvised solo piano pieces. The title, Ibrahim notes, stems from the balance that’s part of those different pieces, what he calls “a balance of different narratives. For me it’s always the idea of telling a story and not just playing notes. There’s a variety of songs and each one has a different aspect and different narrative and different pastel colors. We reached that balance within ourselves.” He adds that the gentle, atmospheric title track “was something I wrote many years ago. We played it in many different formats, but the recording that day in London was what felt like the best way to do it.”

Ibrahim has a small number of dates coming up globally, including rare club shows Aug. 1-4 in New York and Aug. 8-11 in Baltimore. He’s also planning a more extensive, larger-hall tour during the summer of 2020. Meanwhile he’ll partly be celebrating The Balance, coming out June 28, and also his Jazz Master certification, which Ibrahim says was “really stunning. It was such an incredible experience. I did not really understand the scope of this wonderful accolade until I got there. It was very impressive, and of course to be in the company of all these great musicians I aspire to but can never attain. I still have a daily dose of Charlie Parker to analyze and study. So be amongst all those masters was a humbling experience.”

This article was originally written for Billboard.com by Gary Graff.