“The Balance” by Abdullah Ibrahim Review: A Jazz Master Continues to Grow

24 Jun 2019

Some of “The Balance” (Gearbox, out Friday), pianist Abdullah Ibrahim’s first release in five years, is redolent of the sounds of Cape Town, South Africa, where he was born: the buoyant beats and bright tones of township jive; the melodies of traditional African songs and Christian hymns. In the late 1950s, Mr. Ibrahim (then known as Dollar Brand) combined these elements along with the nascent influence of American jazz masters such as Duke Ellington into a distinct musical signature.

In his native country, Mr. Ibrahim has long been known as both pioneer and freedom fighter. As a member of the Jazz Epistles, alongside musicians including trumpeter Hugh Masekela and saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi, he introduced local audiences to bebop’s sound, incorporating the music’s complex harmonies and swinging rhythms into Cape Town’s sound, and adapting its implicit message into the South African struggle against apartheid. His composition “Mannenberg” became an anti-apartheid anthem; he played at Nelson Mandela’s 1994 inauguration.

In the U.S., where he first arrived in 1965 and rose to international fame, Mr. Ibrahim, now 84 years old, has come to exemplify jazz tradition on this side of the Atlantic. In April, he was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master. His new album befits this status, and it reveals a restless sense of invention (mostly by way of fine details) grounded in his life well beyond Cape Town, as well as a pronounced sense of spiritual uplift.

Over the phone from his current home in the Alps, just south of Munich, Germany, Mr. Ibrahim reflected on early advice from Ellington, who was moved enough by his playing to produce 1963’s “Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio.” “Duke showed me the importance of presenting both old and new material, side by side,” he said, “and of performing the older songs as if they were new and the newer ones like they were familiar.”

That’s one meaning invested in this album’s title, “The Balance.” An older composition of Mr. Ibrahim’s, “Jabula,” bears the sound and bounce of township jive during Mr. Ibrahim’s early heyday, his bright chords radiating fresh energy. A newer one, the title track, translates that same impulse into something like a reverie, and features an unusual pairing of harmonica and cello in its opening. “Tuang Guru,” which appeared on Mr. Ibrahim’s classic 1986 album, “Water From an Ancient Well,” is a good example of the freer inclinations that drew the likes of saxophonist Ornette Coleman and trumpeter Don Cherry to his music decades ago; here, the bassline gets sped up, the tempo grows insistent, and Mr. Ibrahim strikes crashing tones to urge the music on.

There are several dimensions of balance at play within this music. One concerns high and low registers, especially on a fast-paced version of Thelonious Monk’s “Skippy,” during which Cleave Guyton Jr.’s piccolo and Marshall McDonald’s baritone saxophone play prominent roles. The album’s smart sequencing balances the often-lush sound of Ekaya, the septet Mr. Ibrahim has led in various incarnations for more than 30 years, and his own commanding presence as a solo pianist on three improvised pieces.

On “Song for Sathima,” Ekaya’s reeds and horns form a church-like choir. On “Nisa,” they voice percussive counterpoint to his melody line. As did the pianists who inspired him, such as Ellington and Monk, Mr. Ibrahim offers clear direction as a bandleader with just a few notes or a well-placed chord or two. Alone at the piano, he remains a modern master—steeped in blues, with a classicist’s touch and poet’s sense of phrasing. On “Tonegawa,” named for a Japanese martial-arts guru, his graceful playing leans on equal measures of force and restraint, of dense clusters and open space.

Mr. Ibrahim’s music is dotted by satisfying, sometimes stunning, passages of repose. It nevertheless sounds as if still unfolding, perhaps hinting at his hardest-won balance. “If you are on a long road and you finally think that you have accomplished something, there is this joy,” he told me, “but there is also the knowledge that the quest inevitably and necessarily goes on.”

This article was originally written by Larry Blumenfeld for the Wall Street Journal.