Abdullah Ibrahim: African Suite

[20 June 2004]

By Robert R. Calder

Abdullah Ibrahim with (but very high-class) Strings

Matthias Winckelmann of Enja records “had always been sensing chamber musical and orchestral colours in Abdullah Ibrahim’s music”, according to Daniel Schnyder’s intriguing notes to this CD. I confess I really hadn’t, or didn’t, and that I still don’t to any special extent. While the present CD could be said to represent an attempt by Daniel Schnyder to realise these European orchestral colours, I’m bound to suggest the investigation had to be a Hellishly difficult one. Schnyder made, I think, the best of it.

One major problem is not merely the African—rather than jazz—characteristics of the music which Schnyder refers to, but their damned nigh untranslatability. To represent very obviously either “The Mountain” or “The Wedding” as a piano or even piano trio performance might almost demand impersonation of the composer. His great sideman, the altosaxophonist Carlos Ward, could cut loose on a sizeable range of Abdullah Ibrahim compositions, but improvising on them, realising potential rather than an essence. Who other than their composer or transcriber from African melody could play such things on piano? They are on a highwire of rhythm and timing and inflection, from which it is easy to fall off into the maudlin.

What to do when charged with turning out works for classical chamber orchestra to play in concert with the pianist and his bassist and drummer?

I resist referring to the rising Swiss composer and saxophone virtuoso as merely “arranger” in the way the notes do. He must have had a wearing job, and it’s easy to nod with understanding, reading that an earlier venture to realise orchestral versions of this music failed.

The “suite” opens with something sounding like a central movement of a conservatively modern 20th century work for piano and chamber orchestra. One is, as it were, flung into the middle. This is a suite without a marked start. The second movement leaves no doubt of Schnyder’s resourcefulness, densely textured writing for a small body of strings producing a sound like very many more strings. The thematic material of these movements may be known to some listeners under the titles, respectively, “Mindif” and “Ishmael”.

The third movement, “Tsakwe”, brings in George Gray’s percussion more importantly, and Belden Bullock’s bass has a specially distinct part. Having already mentioned what, for instance, Carlos Ward used to do as a member of the Abdullah Ibrahim Quartet, that is to say create releases within performances, I can only note the sometimes pent-up feeling of arrangements for a band without wind instruments. By the time of “The Call”, movement 5, the character of the music has shifted into territory Alfred Brendel, for one, claims Rakhmaninov’s piano music belongs to. It has become film music, light music for piano, strings and rhythm some way up a gradient whose lower slopes are muzak. Somewhere on the same slopes are such jazz performances with strings as Charlie Parker’s “Just Friends”. The Stan Getz Eddie Sauter Focus pretty well escapes, but Sauter provided all the themes and the double string quartet arrangements soloed over. Abdullah Ibrahim’s compositions are problematic, and as soloist he doesn’t use a virtuoso technique (and anyway, these aren’t vehicles for his piano-playing!).

After the opening movements’ resemblance to middle movements I do sense a tendency or desire toward the atmosphere or pace of the third and final movement. Yet by the end there’s still no real sense of sequence. “Suite” here doesn’t mean organised totality.

Movement 6, “The Wedding”, was always going to be tricky. The Schnyder option was to go back to a Mozartian style, which might remind readers of the use of Mozart piano concerto material in the film Elvira Madigan.

Despite that ingenious effort, the Protestant hymnal aspect of “The Wedding” comes out simply too strongly over the four-and-three-quarter minutes of the recomposition. There is some tautening in the strings-only one-minute-fifty seconds of “Blanton”, which reminds me a little of some Benjamin Britten. “Aspen” (movement 8) has its own bracing aspects, being a piano solo. It’s itself not terribly far from a hymn tune until the pianist manages to strip out the sanctified (but not sanctimonious) elements of the theme, at least for a bit. Daniel Schnyder is quite right that an enormous range of musical organic compounds are to be found in Abdullah Ibrahim’s music. I would myself have added that there’s more than enough sometimes to cause a kind of musical paralysis, where it’s not clear either what the ambitions are or what the point is. Quite a few of his recordings have no hint of that, of course.

The insistent backbeat of the drums on “Barakaat” just cannot be countered by Schnyder’s ingenious string phrasing to counter associations of light music. Fond as I am of “Tintinyana” in other versions, I can’t hear much better than massed choirs of some evangelical revival in the string part. The pianist generally manages to avoid that sort of effect. “The Mountain of the Night” starts well enough, but the fidelity to source pursued everywhere here by Daniel Schnyder frustrates any prospects this set has of being considered at all a consistent essay in serious European concert music. As a case of jazz with strings, a rather lighter sort of business, it’s pleasant and unhackneyed.

At a higher level there is sometimes an interesting pent-up-ness as a result of the orchestration being strictly for strings. The more I listen, however, the harder it is to credit that there was what the boss of Enja supposed there might be in Abdullah Ibrahim’s music. If you go for jazz with strings or for lighter concert music not above the level of operetta or Robert Farnon—which is probably the best that could have been done with the combination of resources here, you could well take to this. You might be very refreshed, or a fan of that sort of thing, and appreciate how unusual and inventive all of this is, but strictly at that level.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/ibrahimabdullah-africansuite/