Abdullah Ibrahim & WDR Big Band Cologne – Bombella – Sunnyside Records SSC1251, 74:30 ****½:
(Abdullah Ibrahim – piano; Paul Shigihara – guitar; John Goldsby – bass; Hans Dekker – drums; Andy Haderer, Wim Both, Rob Bruynen, John Marshall & Klaus Osterloh – trumpets; Ludwig Nuss, Dave Horler & Bernt Laukamp – trombones; Mattis Cederbers – bass trombone; Heiner Wiberny & Karolina Strassmayer – alto saxophone, flute and clarinet; Olivier Peters & Paul Heller – tenor saxophone, flute and clarinet; Jens Neufang – baritone saxophone, flute and clarinet; Conducted and arranged by Steve Gray)
A native of Capetown, South Africa, Abdullah Ibrahim (the former Dollar Brand) boasts a diversity of musical influences. He maintains a link to his native culture, reflecting traditional African melodies, gospel and folk themes. He has explored modern applications (Monk, Ellington, and Mingus seem to have a connection), and is credited with bringing the first jazz recordings (with the Jazz Epistles in Sophiatown) to South Africa, only to be expatriated by the malignancy of apartheid. He would move to Europe, the U.S. and travel the world, sharing his music and politics with an inevitable return to his beloved country. He plays the piano, cello, flute and saxophone, and mostly performs his own compositions. He has scored motion pictures (Chocolat), and founded the M7 Academy in South Africa.
Bombella, the name of the migrant gold train that carries workers to the metal mines, is a complex emotional observation of the human condition. Boasting intricate arrangements (by Steve Gray), Ibrahim offers a delicate and unique rendering of layered musical textures. The opening track, “Green Kalahari” is a majestic and musing tribute to his home. The solo piano captures mood and feel perfectly. “District Six (Trance Circle Dance)”, continues the underlying political theme, with a breezy uptempo structure, highlighted by an extensive valve trombone solo that leads into a gospel horn choir at the end. A tribute song, “Mandela.” has a rhythmic flute lead waltz in an arrangement that harkens back to the big band era of the 1930s. An elegiac “Meditation – Joan Capetown Flower (Emerald Bay)”, showcases Ibrahim’s straightforward piano lines as they move in and out of interplay with the horn section.
There is a dual track, including a cover of Monk’s “I Mean You/For Monk” presented with a bop sensibility, but interpolated into a softer articulation. A depth of emotion is heard on “Song For Sathima” and “For Lawrence Brown (Remembrance)” – both evocative ballads.
Abdullah Ibrahim is a worldly treasure, capable of inhabiting a society that can be forlorn and irremediable, and infusing it with regeneration and hope.
TrackList: Green Kalahari; Song For Sathima; Mandela; District Six (Trance Circle Dance); Bombella; Meditation-Joan Capetown Flower (Emerald Bay); I Mean You/For Monk; For Lawrence Brown* (Remembrance); Excursions (Masters And Muses); African River.
— Robbie Gerson