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Originally published on September 1, 2019.
Among three stunning solo-piano improvisations on Adbullah Ibrahim’s latest recording, The Balance (Gearbox), the mysteriously shimmering “Tonegawa” is named for the 84-year-old maestro’s martial arts instructor. The track reflects Ibrahim’s decades-long study of the Japanese discipline budo. “It has nothing to do with fighting,” the pianist explains during a FaceTime conversation in late June from his home in the mountains south of Munich. “It’s actually a process of controlling your ego. And the epitome of your studies is when you reach something called mushin, which means ‘no mind.’ It doesn’t mean you’re not thinking.”
The discipline allows Ibrahim to sit at the piano and compose extemporaneously, making almost subconscious use of the many tools and techniques he’s acquired since beginning piano studies at the age of 7. Emptying the mind of distraction is key, as is, perhaps, a certain spiritual orientation. “You get to a point where you are not playing,” he says. “You are being played.”
But Ibrahim, who received an NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship in April and turns 85 in October, is no humorless new-age drudge any more than The Balance is a somber solo effort. The album makes use of his Ekaya nonet and a swirling palette of tonal colors and arranging skills that reveal his debt to mentor Duke Ellington. And the cat is funny.
Sitting in a sun-drenched room in the early evening, Ibrahim pans his phone’s camera toward an open window, revealing the lush greenery of his Alpine setting. A merry sparkle in his eye, a smile creasing his jowly countenance, he laughs frequently and displays a wry sense of humor made all the more charming by his South African accent. Explaining why he lives where he does, he says, “It’s because I have a Fazioli piano downstairs. It was the only Fazioli piano [around]. So if you finally get the piano of your choice, you have to surround it with a home.” He also paraphrases Groucho Mark: “‘Those are my principles, and if they’re not acceptable, I’ve got others.’”
Ibrahim’s principles have long guided his career. As a young jazz musician from Cape Town, he fell afoul of the apartheid government, who considered him — and his music — subversive. Born Adolph Johannes Brand, and later adopting the moniker “Dollar Brand,” Ibrahim had grown up under the oppressive yoke of the racist regime.
In the late ’50s, Ibrahim and trumpeter Hugh Masekela formed the hugely popular Jazz Epistles, South Africa’s answer to Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Their music became a source of pride for South Africa’s black and colored populations but earned the ire of the white government. Following the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, in which 69 demonstrators were killed by police, the regime cracked down even harder. Jazz was all but verboten.
Seeing the writing on the wall, Ibrahim fled to Europe with his future wife, vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin. The couple was living in Zurich in 1963 when Benjamin met Ellington after a concert and convinced him to come and hear her boyfriend, who was playing with his trio at The Africana Club. “We were just about to close down when Sathima and Ellington came to the club,” Ibrahim remembers. “We played one song, and the next day he took us to Paris.”
Ellington recorded Ibrahim’s trio, which resulted in the album Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio. And yes, Ibrahim admits, he was indeed starstruck meeting Ellington. “It was almost like meeting an old wise man in the village,” he says. “It was like meeting Mandela. You prepare what you’re going to say before you meet him, then you say something stupid.”
Ibrahim did meet Nelson Mandela, returning to South Africa to play at his inauguration in 1994. The emotions were bittersweet for the pianist. While he was overjoyed that the apartheid government had been defeated, the ceremony was being held in Pretoria, a city that had been particularly restrictive to people of color. “We were apprehensive,” Ibrahim says. “Pretoria was a place we wouldn’t be seen walking very confidently in the day let alone at night. Playing that day was quite incredible. There were like a million people. And also the change of the regime, with all these airplanes and military parades — yeah, it took a minute for us to really let it sink in that things have changed.”
Initially, Ibrahim’s new album was going to be titled “Jabula,” the Zulu word for “joy,” after a track on the album that makes use of a jaunty Township Jive rhythm. The Gearbox label also wanted to feature a cover photo of township residents celebrating. But Ibrahim thought this was a misrepresentation of his concept. “I said, ‘This is not the joy we’re talking about,’” he relates. “The joy we’re talking about is this journey all of us are on. And it’s an arduous journey. Then you arrive at a point where you think you’ve covered everything and there’s this moment of joy, only to realize there’s still a long road ahead.”
[caption id="attachment_22390" align="alignleft" width="1024"] Abdullah Ibrahim: “The joy we’re talking about is this journey all of us are on. And it’s an arduous journey. Then you arrive at a point where you think you’ve covered everything and there’s this moment of joy, only to realize there’s still a long road ahead.”[/caption]
The Balance, also the title of the song that concludes the album, was a better fit. Comprising solo and full-band pieces, old and new songs, lovely ballads and boppish workouts, the album lives up to its title. The songs employ a variety of textures, from flute and baritone saxophone to trombone and piccolo. Ibrahim salutes his late ex-wife with the tender and bluesy “Song for Sathima,” and celebrates an important Islamic figure from South African history with the lean and muscular “Tuan Guru.” He says he borrowed the concept of mixing old and new material from Ellington, who would play new songs in the first set so audiences would stick around to hear their favorites.
For inspiration, edification and just plain soul-satisfying enjoyment, Ibrahim makes a daily diet of recordings by Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker. Bird’s music continues to astonish him. “Of course, I know the chords, but what he does with them is quite incredible,” he says. “And the resolution to them seems so effortless. It sounds simple but it’s complex.” The same, he says, goes for Monk. And it might well be said of Ibrahim himself.
With festival dates in Europe, and some club dates in the United States with Ekaya this summer, then some solo shows planned for September to coincide with a solo-piano recording, Ibrahim maintains his equilibrium. He practices every day, believing that delving into the basics reveals all the knowledge he needs to continue growing.
“Balance is in everything,” he says. “Being in and out of balance is really destiny. So you understand that whatever you do is destiny. And that is what [happens] when I play the music, especially when I improvise. When you start playing a chorus, you are actually activating your destiny. In a way, it’s absolutely terrifying, but if you have practiced 9,995 million times, you’re cool.” - Bob Weinberg