South African jazz musician Abdullah Ibrahim is frequently mentioned in the same breath as that of his mentor, Duke Ellington. Ellington discovered Ibrahim in Europe (when Ibrahim went by the name Dollar Brand) and not only arranged for a recording contract and a gig at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1965, but even had Ibrahim serve as Ellington’s substitute and lead the Ellington Orchestra for a number of shows. Ibrahim has performed and recorded in a number of jazz styles before and since, including last year’s award winning solo piano record, Senzo, but this disc with a big band comes closest to actually sounding like an Ellington record.
The 75-year-old Ibrahim has said this was a conscious decision. He purposely reinterpreted and rearranged material he had written or performed in the past in the way Ellington had frequently done with his own material. Such is the case with the title tune, which Ibrahim had penned as a boy of 16. The song “Bombella” takes its name from a train and moves with great force, led by the brass section of the 18-piece WDR Big Band Cologne. The composition employs five trumpets, five saxophones, and four trombones. You can hear the powerful engine roar and the clatter of the tracks as well as the existential bliss of traveling. This ain’t no “A Train” a la Ellington, which was really a subway — this is a real locomotive.
The opening track “Green Kalahari” provides a strong contrast. Ibrahim begins the disc with a two-and-a-half-minute piano solo to set the mood, which is measured and thoughtful. Ibrahim sometimes lets the tempo flow, and then makes sudden stops, as if he’s lost in reflection and needs to get hold of himself. Ibrahim has written that this composition was completely improvised in the studio in one take and that he could not play it again. Good thing the tape was running!
The other eight cuts fall somewhere in between these two sonic extremes. The highlight of the album, the ten-plus-minute “Meditation/Joan Capetown Flower”, takes elements found in the two tracks previously described. Ibrahim starts with a contemplative three-minute piano solo before the band makes its presence known. After that, the different instruments chime in, and the pace moves faster as the song gets louder and sweeter. With about three minutes left, Ibrahim takes center stage again, at a faster and more lyrical pace than before. Then the band joins in once more, with a fanfare this time, and takes the listener out. Because of the botanical name given the piece, one cannot help but think metaphorically of the different stages of growth and development from bud to blossom to seed as the different phases of the song. It ends with the promise of something more to happen, an idea complemented by the track’s placement at the center of the disc.
For more than six decades, Ibrahim has performed and recorded some of the greatest jazz on the planet. He continues to release new and innovative music, and if anything, Ibrahim seems to get better with age. This new album serves as proof.