If I were writing for a food and drink magazine, one of those lifestyle mags where people rave about very expensive grappa or the virtues of high-end rum, I would enthusiastically recommend The Very Best of Abdullah Ibrahim as great dinner party music. The reason is that this is a collection where all the tunes sound sophisticated and exotic and yet approachable, and are thus unlikely to offend or surprise anyone (lest the guests become distracted from the wild mushroom salad appetizer).
Composer/pianist Ibrahim, known until 1968 as Dollar Brand, is, along with Hugh Masekala, the best-known jazz performer to hail from South Africa. In fact, the two performed together in the late 1950s as part of the important South African jazz group, the Jazz Epistles ¾ important because, among other things, they were the first South African group to record a jazz album. Outside of South Africa, Ibrahim’s career really took off when Duke Ellington heard Brand, at that time living exile in Switzerland, playing in a club and was impressed enough to bring him to New York where the younger musician went on to make his mark, gathering much critical and significant popular success along the way.
Relaxed and groovy, the music on The Very Best of, collected from albums released on the Enja label from 1979 to 1997 (thus greatly overstating the claim that this is the very best of Ibrahim given that it represents nothing from over half the man’s career). Aside from a couple of tunes like “For Monk”, this music typically brings together a rhythmic sensibility that is distinctly African with more traditional approaches to jazz instrumentation and improvisation. Throughout the sound is very assured, which on the one hand means that few chances are taken, while on the other it conveys the sense that Ibrahim is very much in control of and comfortable with his musical ideas.
On the best of these tunes, such as “Zikr”, a lush duet with bassist Johnny Mbizo Dyani, featuring both artists on vocals and Dyani using a bow to create a quiet intensity, or “Mandela” featuring a swinging horn section lead by Carlos Ward on alto, it the band that tends to really stand out and make the performance. Of course this is nothing if not a compliment to Ibrahim given that it is a distinct talent to be able to attract and lead talent. Yet, while there are lots of nice touches throughout, such as the interesting pairing of flute and trombone on “Pule (Rain)”, this package unfortunately has an overall sound of sameness. And throughout it is usually Ibrahim and his reliance on the repetition of a single passage or progression, on ostinato, that keeps this music from developing beyond being nice. Yes it’s great to hear a pianist laying down such a tight groove, but it gets a bit boring to hear this selection of material feature Ibrahim pulling out the same trick again and again.