Music

Abdullah Ibrahim: Senzo

An hour of solitary and ethereal playing in a single take recalls Thelonious Monk’s solo masterpiece, Thelonious Alone in San Francisco.


Abdullah Ibrahim

Senzo

Label: Sunnyside
UK Release Date: 2008-10-27
US Release Date: 2009-03-03
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For the last 48 years Abdullah Ibrahim has been releasing albums at a rate faster than one a year, leaving no one to question his prolific nature. But it is the rich content and singular synthesis of American and African jazz influences that have made Ibrahim the profoundly important player he remains today.

A talented black musician under apartheid, Ibrahim recorded one of the first jazz LP’s in South Africa with the ensemble the Jazz Epistles. Soon after, he took advantage of an opportunity to play in the European tour of the South African musical King Kong, a production that helped launched the career of some of his country’s most revered musicians -- Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Ibrahim himself.

Remaining in Europe and chance provided a golden opportunity for Ibrahim (who, years before his conversion to Islam, went by the name Dollar Brand): Duke Ellington, touring Switzerland at the time, was talked into seeing Ibrahim’s set one night by his future wife, Sathima Bea Benjamin. The Duke was so impressed he recorded Ibrahim on some European labels before insisting he come back to New York with him to record for Reprise.

His tenure at Reprise lead to collaborations with some of jazz’s greatest names (Coltrane, Ellington, Coleman) and catapulted a career that would see him return briefly to South Africa before touring the world over and settling in both Europe and New York. Only after his country’s reunification could he live there again, playing at Mandela’s inauguration in 1994.

Nearly 50 years later and approaching 75, Ibrahim plays as strong as ever on Senzo while also sounding ever more contemplative and liberated. It could be the solo format or just the wisdom befitting of a man with his experience. Overall, Senzo seems more aligned in tone and feeling with his African Suite than other albums, though it lacks many of the trio’s defining grooves and beats that kinetically connected many pieces on Suite or African River.

Interestingly, it lacks predominant meter and percussion throughout the album, but Ibrahim pulls emotion out of the subtle but abundant polyrhythms. “Banyana” is joyous and verdant, while the opening track, “Ocean & the River”, is beautifully pastoral and light. Some breathtaking portions and runs sound like a Chopin nocturne.

Nowhere is there a dedication to Thelonious (unlike Coltrane and Ellington), but he certainly alludes to Monk’s “I Mean You” in the many dissonant passages and runs of “Blues For A Hip King" (specifically 4:13). In many ways Senzo mimics Monk’s Thelonious Alone in San Francisco stylistically, structurally and emotionally. Ibrahim inherited Monk’s percussive-fingering technique and jarring accents. Each confronts and surprises, then melt away, finally leaving the listener provoked yet soothed. Like Monk in San Francisco, Ibrahim sounds reclusive and melancholy with spurts of blithe reflection.

Though “Dust” is a strangely graceful, impressionistic interpretation of the sediment, conveying grit, lightness and whimsicality, portions of melody have a very Bernstein-ian quality. In other words, Ibrahim manages a beautifully delicate balance between dissonance and melody, color and texture.

While “Third Line Samba” alludes to the African Diaspora (the first and second lines leading and following a New Orleans brass band), Ibrahim repeats the main triad of “When the Saints Go Marching In” throughout “Mediation/Mummy”. As each track flows into the next (assuming the record is one continuous take), the energy of “Mediation/Mummy” emanates into “Jabulani”, which sounds like a celebratory fanfare.

The melody near the beginning of “Dust (Reprise)” evokes Maynard Ferguson’s “Coconut Champagne”—its descending and syncopated riff—without sinking to its saccharine structure and melodies. But then as the left-hand transitions to a cyclical and gently syncopated pattern over which his right-hand played bursts of notes it settles into a typical South African Marabi sound with overtones of bop: a perfect example of Ibrahim’s culture, and genre, bending playing and compositions.

Near the end of the album, “In a Sentimental Mood” expansive chords are filled with bop flourishes, allowing for the piece’s melody to trickle into the wide spaces left by the chords, concurrently enchantingly elongated but dynamic,

The CD’s cardboard packaging is minimalist and standard, but after each title Ibrahim has written some descriptor, elucidating the sentiment, mood, motive or inspiration behind each composition. Overall, it provides a pleasing glimpse into the thoughts of a living legend.

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