Abdullah Ibrahim Trio: Cape Town Revisited

Robert R. Calder

Abdullah Ibrahim Trio

Cape Town Revisited

Label: Justin-Time
US Release Date: 2004-02-24
UK Release Date: Available as import

With hours of Abdullah Ibrahim now available on record, any special critical recommendation has to be well supported. This set stands up amid the days' and weeks' worth of piano trio sets as a valuable individuality.

The obvious factor here -- beside the pianist playing very differently from what I've heard him, but still equally individually (like nobody else, even his other selves!) is Marcus McLaurine. His performance on bass brings a remarkable perkiness to what might have been one of the brightest, most relaxed sessions by a leader who -- sometimes on disc and often in photographs -- can seem a self-parody of personal over-intensity. It would seem necessary to be a victim of moral paralysis to miss a certain damage done the former Dollar Brand's music by the pains and exasperations of exile: first the internal exile of disenfranchisement as an African under the parodistic crudities of the Apartheid system, the presumptions of incapacity, the self-policed brutalistic self-conceits of being right. Then there was exclusion from his native country.

Cape Town is not a place without problems, but with the ending of the Apartheid regime Abdullah Ibrahim could go back and other people begin other work within the community and political systems of what had to be a new state. He still lives some part of his time in New York, where he has lived for longer than a sizeable number of South African voters have lived in South Africa. He need no longer pine for, say, some ceremonies or parades of the African South African Protestant church. He can hope for far more than seemed feasible when, as a young man, he was enthused about American jazz, modern Western civilisation -- and in particular those extensions of traditional African music which turned up quite recognisable on recordings from diagonally across the Atlantic.

Bad as things were in Chicago, and worse as they were in Johannesburg, young Adolphus Brand wasn't trapped in a miasma of pan-African nostalgia and Pan Am advertisements. The CD's notes tell us of a long history of American jazz records in South Africa, and his decent scholarly interest jointly in native African music and the (what was in a real sense) new world music which enthused homeland black communities over decades. If you need a written introduction, this CD, this performance, has to do with the practical remedy of isolation, and indeed with beauty.

I suppose I'm close to lumbering Marcus McLaurine with some kind of imputed symbolic status, as some mediator or visitor from the other side. Actually I'm just saying that this is the function of what he does on this recording, or during the concert performance taped and issued here. George Gray works pretty hard too, drumming impeccably without the opportunity of such an individual performance, and to excellent effect.

The opening titles announce a lyrical intent, the lightness of touch and heart -- the joky quote and the high-speed dancing bass of "Someday Soon Sweet Samba" dreaming an end to Apartheid with feelings not inappropriate to other Great Days.

Then, formally into the suite from which the CD takes its title, the first movement called "African Street Parade" is rhythmically worthy of Harold Dejan's Olympia Brass Band in New Orleans. Presumably that band took part in one and another kind of "African Street Parade", funeral, Mardi Gras, or whatever. It didn't need to be pure African, but it did need to do more than bear a superficial resemblance. The music gives an impression of uncoiling, and it's hard not to dance to. The bass sounds falsetto, McLaurine plays so high, and the pianist almost takes it easy above his toiling trio partners.

After the second movement -- which sounds like a simple riff made up on the spot -- the pianist's tender expression of love of his wife, "Song for Sathima", is a lyrical interlude rather than an intrusion into the dance. In the third movement, "Too-Kah", bass and drums double a piano part. The echoes (as in the CD's first track) are of Ellington and of the Caribbean, reaching a resolution.

The ostinato bass of "Tintinyano" has a gospel feel, the music a matter of harmonic extension, and behind the trumpet solo of Fela Faku (a guest not on three numbers, as the notes have it, but four) the accompaniment dissolves or fades in a very interesting, non-aggressive non-assertive way. There's a hint of Ray Bryant's sort of sanctified Jimmy Yancey.

This is followed by an exotic Ellingtonian theme, dedicated to the Islamic hero "Tuang Guru", a long line unfolding over the frantic drums and bass. There's a remarkable doubling of tempo without necessarily any increase in the number of notes struck. "Eleventh Hour" is close to an Ellington/Strayhorn line for Johnny Hodges' alto, and I may well have missed some development of it by either Carlos Ward on alto, or Ricky Ford, who led the ensemble of Abdullah Ibrahim's Ekaya group with his tenor sax simulation of Hodges. I note McLaurine again, and maybe somebody else he plays with will produce a ballad performance of this moving tune. How adaptable any of Abdullah Ibrahim's music is to other improvisers' capacities I do not know (apart from what I've heard from men in his respective bands).

Many the pianist could despair of ever having such support as Messrs. Gray and McLaurine provide, sustaining momentum and allowing the pianist relaxation, the time to exercise timing. This is a considerably individual piano trio performance, utterly unlike any of the several sometimes extremely good ones which have passed across the desk these last couple of years. It's different even from the also splendid "African Magic", a more recent recording reissued earlier by Justin Time from Enja. The pianist was still more Ellingtonian in July 2001.

"Water from an Ancient Well" is a hymn allied to wistful feelings. The unannounced presence of the trumpeter here turns it into a real occasion. In fact, his entry has something of the impromptu character of a contribution from within a church congregation: to singing which in some Christian tradition is called -- very aptly to this -- praise. There's more McLaurine viola-cello bass-playing. The trumpet over fevered drums of "Tsakwe -- Royal Blue" is a clarion call at a cracking pace. The worshippers are at an ecstatic pitch, McLaurine's rapid-fire playing squeezes the highest notes extractable musically from his instrument, excitement itself.

"Soweto" is a triumphant expression.

"The Mountain" is a delicate and serene melodic statement, expressing a serenity of the summit. "The Wedding" as another modern ancient hymn is a dream of, I have to say, togetherness. The bassist is again a crucial presence in the closer, "Barakaat", subtitled The Blessing, but the temptation to suggest that Marcus McLaurine's is the really crucial presence or sine qua non here misses the point of working together, dancing together, praying and singing together, which this performance is all about. Does Cape Town Revisited refer simply to the man once called Dollar Branc coming back to his home city, or is there a larger vision of a spiritual presence on a further visitation to the South African city, at a time when it can mean and do more. Is this really a new vision of Cape Town?

Very possibly.


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