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


Label: Sunnyside
UK Release Date: 2008-10-27
US Release Date: 2009-03-03

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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.