LP REVIEW: Abdullah Ibrahim – African Piano

Abdullah Ibrahim – African Piano
(JAPO/ECM Records JAPO 60002/ECM 374 3555. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)

The great African pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim started his career as Dollar Brand and it was under this name that he recorded a live solo piano set in October 1969 at the ‘Montmartre’ Jazzhus in Copenhagen. The gig was first released by a Scandinavian label (Spectator Records) in 1970, then by the German Japo label, effectively a mail order division of ECM, before being subsumed into the ECM catalogue proper. And it is ECM from whom it now appears in a new high quality vinyl version.

It’s remarkable how much of Abdullah Ibrahim’s character comes over in the simplest of materials. From the very opening chords of the opening track Bra Joe From Kilimanjaro, this is unmistakably Ibrahim playing — rolling musically, staking out territory with ringing commentary and gradually establishing supremacy over the café conversation at the Jazzhus which soon falls respectfully silent. Swirling scales spread out like glittering tributaries of a river and swift rhythmic runs descend like waterfalls. The piece comes to a contemplative conclusion which is both precise and spacious. Ibrahim’s playing is continuous and without appreciable pause and we flow swiftly through the brief second track whose title is almost longer than its duration — Selby That the Eternal Spirit is the Only Reality. Then we are into the crowded rhythm of The Moon, a tour de force which dominates Side 1 of the album. Dense exposition yields to jaunty celebration and soon we’re chiming and churning, a runaway train through the African landscape. This tune is a benign juggernaut hurtling to a joyful destination. Ibrahim goes right past the stop signal, straight into the final tune of the first side, Xaba with bright right hand block chords suggesting token attempts at braking the express. But the wheels slow, the steam subsides and Abdullah Ibrahim’s piano fades out.

Although Side 2 nominally begins with a new track, Sunset in Blue, it sounds like a straight fade up of Side 1, with a cheerful lilting theme. The relentless, melodic excursion slows to a thoughtful lyricism in the shape of the slipping, slow and delicate Kippy, a pondering, poetic meditation with clean, open chords and a lot of space. The album wraps up with the infectious affirmation of Tintiyana, a sunny Sunday-go-to-church piece.

The ECM publicity notes for this valuable reissue advise that “the flavour of this album is ‘documentary’ rather than luxuriantly hi-fidelity.” But there’s no need for apologies or caveats; the sound is lovely, immediate and alive, the piano sharp, clean-cut and resonant (vastly better than, say, the tragically muffed piano miking of Duke Ellington on Money Jungle by a major label some years earlier). This is a great sound document catching the then Dollar Brand at his raw and virile best.

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