The music of South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim is a world unto itself. Although Ibrahim has followers and intersects with a “Cape jazz” scene that has identifiable characteristics, he long ago became a figure like his hero Duke Ellington: a man whose sound as a composer and player is unmistakable.
Ibrahim’s latest, Mukashi (Once Upon a Time), is as unique as anything he has recorded. It is a piece of chamber jazz for solo piano, piano, and one reed (flute, clarinet, or saxophone), or piano with cellos and a reed. It combines a number of Ibrahim’s interests and loves in music, including a melodic strain that evokes the east—also evoked by the title of the album and its first song, the Japanese word for “once upon a time.”
This disc does tell stories. A short three-part suite for solo piano, “Krotoa”, tells the story of a Cape Town girl encountering settlers for the first time. The first part seems to ask a series of innocent questions, Ibrahim’s right hand playing a set of two-note intervals that pop upward and then downward in query. The music is very spare and full of space, open to an answer. The second portion, “Devotion”, is a tender set of harmonic movements that feels tentative and hopeful at the same time. Finally, “Endurance” combines a brightness, a degree of sunshine, with a spikier set of chords and clusters, dissonances that suggest that that the little girls is no longer so wide-eyed.
Other stories here seem to be Ibrahim’s musical tales of influence or discovery. “Mississippi” is a soulful and cheerful song that mashes gospel feeling to the blues, with Cleave Guyton’s clarinet evoking New Orleans just enough. Cello plays a pizzicato line like a jazz player as Ibrahim stabs chords and outlines the flow of blues feeling. “Trace Elements / For Monk” is of course for the other great pianist who Ibrahim is indebted to, and it takes the form of a luxurious but angular ballad that shifts into a simple set of steps that move downward for flute, cello, and piano—a clever kind of tribute that sounds as much like Erik Satie as like the bop pianist.
Most of the songs here, however, tell stories about Ibrahim’s past as much as they trace his influences. “Peace” moves like a stately essay on Ibrahim’s native harmonies and melodic tendencies, first on piano only, then just for flute and cello. “Root” is a variant on Ibrahim’s most famous tune, “Mannenberg”—a dancing movement that reharmonizes the part of that older song that everyone knows best.
The most elaborate of the arrangements on Mukashi are a bit more lush, with clarinet and cello harmonizing and the movement of different pieces orchestral, for instance, on “In the Evening”. “The Balance” is even more enjoyable, a final song that is playful and blue at once, a little tap dance of a song.
There is very little improvising on this recording, though Ibrahim’s solo piano work contains lyrical flights that are not scripted. But it remains that Mukashi sounds like a set of sketches, simple line drawings that aren’t meant to be elaborated on all that much. The miniaturism of the recording is its strength, its charm, its grace. The quiet of the songs is what draws you in to listen a bit closer. And while the pleasant sway of Ibrahim’s township sound is still here, this is more like a recording of tenderness, a recording of gentle ease.
This year, Abdullah Ibrahim will reach his 80th birthday, and Mukashi sounds both like the kind of mature, focused effort that might come from a man who is about to retire and like something new, something fresh. Ibrahim is painting with a different set of colors on this record, forging a slightly new sound, bridging to a different culture, too. And that kind of expansion of effort is a boost to any listener—a sign that jazz is a music that renews as much as anything. This music will give your ears a sense of lift, gentle lift.