Oppressors hate jazz. Whether in the U.S. or abroad, jazz always makes the right enemies. The Soviets and Castro tried to stomp it out, unsuccessfully. Hitler was no fan, and you don’t hear much about a Chinese jazz scene. Jazz requires, promotes, and symbolizes a certain kind of democracy and exchange of ideas that dictators can’t tolerate. The jazz mongrel heritage—a mixture of high and low culture, Africa and Europe, black and white—is a living contradiction of extremist purism, no matter its form or home.
So it was no surprise that the burgeoning jazz scene in 1950s and ‘60s South Africa was crippled by the rise of apartheid. The Johannesburg jazz scene—mixing races and ideas in a vital musical pot—was literally outlawed. And, of course, many musicians fled the country for Europe and America.
When the young composer and pianist Dollar Brand traveled through Europe, his wife convinced Duke Ellington to catch his show, and Duke had the kid in a Paris recording studio, lickety-split. The career that followed—about 40 years of which you can still hear on about 20 available recordings—is one of the most unique in all of jazz. Dollar Brand, renamed Abdullah Ibrahim after a religious conversion, is a singular and towering figure in world music.
Enja, Ibrahim’s label for many years, has just released an essential and fascinating collection of the composer’s body of work, A Celebration, ably capturing music from 1973 through today. While not representing wholly new work from the 71 year-old master, this is a significant addition to the discography and, more importantly, surely the best chance for new listeners to get hip to this international treasure. At the same time, the label is releasing a unique treat: Re:Brahim: Abdullah Ibrahim Remixed, a collection of 13 remixes of Ibrahim’s funky-unique jazz.
Attempts to describe Ibrahim’s music inevitably resort to Ellington and Monk comparisons. Like Duke, he is a composer first, and his pianism is almost never the typical jazz style of spinning complex solos like some trumpeter on the ivories. Like Monk, his melodies are memorable but quirky. But, for the most part, this tells you little about the music itself, which combines jazz and South African styles in a manner that is wholly distinctive. Ibrahim uses blues lines, jazz chords, and the essential sound of a jazz rhythm section (piano, acoustic bass, trap kit), but he marries the American idiom to a wide range of African cadences, tunes, and rhythms. The effect is an artistic sucker punch, maybe—folk simplicity masking jazz complexity—but Ibrahim uses it like a pentatonic Picasso, slaying you every time.
A Celebration is a compilation of tracks from Ibrahim’s Enja work, but it is an exceptionally fine selection. Ranging from solo piano work to a full orchestra to a 2004 remix by DJ Explizit, this is the rare collection that is both historically accurate and pleasantly programmed for listening. The opener, “Ntsikana’s Bell”, is a 1973 duet between Ibrahim and bassist/vocalist Johnny Dyani that sets the table just right: this is both jazz and African music, and nowhere in any jazz discography is the simultaneous connection and distinction between these musics made more obvious. Dyani sings a melody that could no more appear on an Ellington or Monk record than a black man could hold office in South Africa in 1973. When Ibrahim’s piano enters, it is a stately gospel groove in 3/4 that Westernizes the African melody and adds a jazz-suggestive harmonic background but never erases the pull of the original vocal. It is a wholly mesmerizing track.
“Ishmael” allows you to hear Ibrahim on his second instrument, soprano saxophone. This unusual double is reminiscent of another great pianist who should be evoked more often in discussions of Ibrahim: Keith Jarrett. Ibrahim has a fresh, highly vocalized sound on the soprano, with a broad vibrato, much like Jarrett. When his piano enters for the first brief improvisation, it is also reminiscent of Jarrett’s style: both harmonically sophisticated and grounded in simple cadences and folk music elements. “The Perfumed Forest Wet With Rain”, which follows, simply consolidates the way in which Ibrahim’s piano style fuses the past (Ellington) with the future (Jarrett) of the instrument. A highly composed piece that blends melody, accompaniment, and ornamentation into a carefully arranged whole, “Perfumed Forest” bursts to life at its midpoint with a rhapsodic improvisation that takes rhythmic liberties that were scarcely available to Duke. It is a sublime moment. “Ancient Cape”, the other solo piano piece in the collection, also evokes Jarrett, with its ostinato left-hand figure and its loose-limbed melodic playing.
The center-slice of the collection, however, are three recordings by Ibrahim’s stately sextet/septet from the 1980s, Ekaya (which, significantly, means “home”). With Ekaya, Ibrahim arrays woodwinds and trombone in a four-part voicing that is simultaneously suggestive of the vocal arrangements of traditional South African music and American gospel music. “African Marketplace” simply grooves you like township music should, the rhythm both funky and syncopated. “The Mountain” is a gorgeous, slow melody that features Carlos Ward’s flute atop a stack of beautiful low reeds and brass that might have been arranged by Gil Evans. There is no improvising on this tune, but it’s unmistakably jazz nonetheless, gently moved along by Ben Riley’s drums as if the tune were some odd outtake from Kind of Blue.
Finally, the Ekaya septet plays “Mannenberg Revisited”, a song utterly central to Ibrahim’s canon. In the mid-‘70s Ibrahim recorded the original “Mannenberg”, named after the black South African township and featuring a searingly relaxed and masterful tenor sax solo by countryman Basil Coetzee. The song became an anti-apartheid anthem during the final years of the corrupt regime, being played at civil rights gatherings all across South Africa and around the world. “Mannenberg Revisited” canonizes the original saxophone solo by scoring it for Ekaya’s four horns—recreating the solo note-for-note in a breathtakingly precise act of collective relaxation. This track—with the four harmonized horns dancing atop Ibrahim’s slow-rolling rhythm section—is heaven.
Some people will find the remaining two tracks of this collection to be odd misfires. “Mindif” is a piece for jazz trio and string orchestra, and it works hard to overcome the usual problems with jazz-classical hybrids. The string arrangement is neither sticky-sweet accompaniment nor purely classical, and the various voices in the piece have some chance to genuinely interact. That said, it still meanders, losing the rhythmic incentive that is present at all tempos in the rest of Ibrahim’s work. The last track is from the second of these two albums—a remix of “Calypso Minor” that will have some Ibrahim purists scoffing but, surely, will be others’ favorite track on the collection.
Re:Brahim is an unusually successful remix project to my ears. Unlike so much jazz that might be subject to a remix project, Ibrahim’s music boasts a healthy supply of elemental vamps and clean, short-duration melodies that lend themselves well to funk remixing. The opener (also on A Celebration), “Calypso Minor”, is a simple but bold treatment, setting Ibrahim’s tune over a deeper, funkier groove than we’re used to. “Blues for a Hip King” takes an unusually plain Ibrahim piano solo and sets it to a series of odd electronic beats that manage to emphasis the solo’s childlike qualities, almost as if the tune had originally been conceived as a lullaby. Many of the remix tracks take a long time to get themselves going—for example Phillip Winter’s remix of “Mindif” seems to percolate forever before Ibrahim’s pulsing horns enter the soundscape. I prefer DJ Spooky’s remix of the piano version of the tune, which is both funkier and more varied.
Fans of Ibrahim’s music may hear Re:Brahim as little more than a slicing up of their favorites to little danceable effect. And it’s true that the second disc is more a matter of atmosphere than anything else. But it’s fascinating to hear Ibrahim’s music travel over yet another barrier, breaking down the strictures of yet another dictated state. Abdullah Ibrahim and his music, whether jazz, African music, or studio-processed remix, always challenges. These collections bring Ibrahim to the next batch of fans who can love his music of liberation. A celebration indeed.