Abdullah Ibrahim— Dollar Brand at Montreux — Enja 9201, 41:16 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:
Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya — Sotho Blue — Sunnyside SSC 1276, 49:19 ****:
(Dollar Brand at Montreux: Abdullah Ibrahim – Piano; Carlos Ward – Alto Sax and Flute; Craig Harris – Trombone; Alonzo Gardener — Electric Bass; Andre Strobert — Drums)
(Abdullah Ibrahim and Ekaya: Adullah Ibrahim – Grand Piano; Belden Bullock – Bass; George Gray – Drums; Cleave Guyton – Alto Sax and Flute; Keith Loftis – Tenor Sax; Andrae Murchison – Trombone; Jason Marshall – Baritone Sax)
Put out close to each other in time, Sotho Blue and Enja’s re-issue of the 1980 live recording Dollar Brand at Montreux offer two views on the later work of South African piano legend now named Abdullah Ibrahim. One of the most visible faces of the South African musical diaspora, Ibrahim broke ground for the many South African jazz players who would later make and stay on the international scene, first appearing on record introduced by Duke Ellington and filling in a few dates at the helm of Duke’s band while still in his tender years. One of the few players to span as many eras and styles of jazz, Ibrahim sounds equally at ease playing far out avant-garde alongside Don Cherry as he does playing the elegant modernism of Duke and in his own sets will include fiery abstractions alongside gospel driven grooves and bebop standards.
By the eighties, Ibrahim already devoted less of his playing to the fierce dissonance found in earlier tunes like his “Portrait of a Bushman,” instead favoring his more open, spiritual melodies and danceable numbers. At Montreux, “The Perfumed Forest Wet With Rain” starts with him playing solo and begins with echoes of his earlier proclivity for challenging runs built on tension and release, but quickly introduces the horns and banishes the unease from the song.
Both albums feature him and his band playing his shimmering ballad “The Wedding,” offering an easy point of comparison through which to track how his sound and approach to leading an ensemble has progressed in the years between. Most immediately striking is the difference in production style, with the live Montreux recording reflecting the emphasis on a fuller electric bass and piano sound familiar from so many seventies and eighties albums, which stands in stark contrast to the pristine precision studio sound favored by Sunnyside and the philosophies of 2010.
The difference in production mirror the bands as whole, pointing to Ibrahim’s process of cutting down and distilling the essence of what he plays. At Montreux, “The Wedding” features Carlos Ward playing the melody over a bed of full lines supplied by Ibrahim and driven by the stick work of Andre Strobert on drums. Recorded again on Sotho Blue, Ibrahim lays out and lets the four horns take melody alone, orchestrating his previous accompaniments beautifully across the three horns not on melody.
The rest of Sotho Blue similarly trades some of Ibrahim the player for Ibrahim the arranger, a talent worth featuring, as his arrangements are meltingly beautiful and ornate—evoking the best of film noir on the opening “Calypso Minor” and channeling the still fresh genius of Bud Powell’s “Glass Enclosure” into a slower paced version, which retains the vitality despite removing the usual captivating march of the drums.
In contrast, Dollar Brand at Montreux offers more church and pop sensibilities for the crowd to rally behind, which they very clearly do and it’s a treat to hear the sounds of the crowd getting down. Songs like “Whoza Mtwana,” whose groove is built from a bluesy piano riff repeated the whole song as the rest of the band builds the song up to a frenzy, and “Ishmael,” which foreground a haunting bass part delivered by Alonze Gardener, rely on accessible pop repetition that gives the listener an easy home to rest within. Carlos Ward played with Ibrahim and Don Cherry on The Third World, so what the band offers is the more accessible, soulful side often present in the avant-garde.
Both albums present an older, more introspective side of Ibrahim highly worth the listening. If forced to choose between the recordings, the deciding factor has to be whether one subscribes more to the gospel of down home soul or lofty choral sounds echoing off the high rafters of the cathedral because the quality of both lives up to the high standard present through out Ibrahim’s long career.
TrackList: Dollar Brand at Montreux: Tsakve, Whoza Mtwana, The Homecoming Song, The Wedding, The Perfumed Forest Wet With Rain, Ishmael. Sotho Blue: Calypso Minor, Sotho Blue, Abide, Nisa, The Mountain, The Wedding, Glass Enclosure, Star Dance, Joan Capetown Flower (Emerald Bay).
— Robin Margolis