The legendary South African jazz pianist/composer Abdullah Ibrahim began playing with the combo Ekaya back in 1983. The politics of his home country got in the way of their continuance as a band. This new release features a different group of musicians under that same name. “Ekaya” means home, which was a radical statement for a black man to make during the Apartheid years. Now, judging by the music on the new release, Ekaya is a warm, nostalgic, beautiful place; home in the more normative sense of the word. One can surmise Ibrahim feels comfortable with his new collaborators. They certainly seem relaxed and at ease together.
The current band’s incarnation includes three saxophone players (Cleave Guyton on alto, Keith Loftis on tenor and Jason Marshall on baritone), Andrae Murchison on trombone, George Gray on drums and Ibrahim himself on grand piano. The septet offer up new and spirited reinterpretations of eight of Ibrahim’s early works, and a stately version of Bud Powell’s “Glass Enclosure”. The music always conveys a sense of motion, even when the melodies are at their most mellow. The album is the aural equivalent of a nature walk, and the South African scenery offers constant surprise and stimulation.
Consider the long sweeps of the alternate saxophone lead lines on “Joan Capetown Flower (Emerald Bay)”. The effect conveys the grandeur and sumptuousness of where the mountains meet the sea. One can hear the surf hit the beach and visualize the blue sky. The music suggests reflection, not meditation but a more active frame of mind. Ibrahim’s piano playing fills in the gaps as one thought leads to another and another before ebbing away. And there’s Ibrahim’s lilting solo piano that opens “The Mountain”, which seems engaged in the act of climbing itself. The endeavor is not arduous as much as one of wonderment—just like when one scales a height only to look down in amazement below.
Of course, Ibrahim encounters other people while on his pastoral. The jaunty “Calypso Minor” resonates with a more sophisticated atmosphere. One can imagine the cocktail party or night club where all the patrons seem almost animalistic while on the prowl for love. Or the communal celebration expressed in “The Wedding”, where the horns play together as one in sweet harmony. There’s even the sexy vibe parlayed by the piano/saxophone interactions on “Nisa.” Being natural can also means having physical contact with one’s fellow beings.
An album such as this serves as a reminder of what jazz used to sound like during its heyday in the mid-twentieth century. Critics will continue to compare Ibrahim with his mentor Duke Ellington and use this album as part of the evidence to make their case. That’s damn high praise! But Ibrahim surely deserves the encomium. Sotho Blue offers compelling proof of the South African musician’s mighty talents as a composer, arranger and piano player. The 76-year-old musician continues to make create deeply evocative jazz that combines African and American influences in a complex and exquisite style.