LP review

Abdullah Ibrahim – The Balance

Abdullah Ibrahim – The Balance
(Gearbox Records GB1554. LP Review by Sebastian Scotney)

The Balance is the first album that Abdullah Ibrahim has recorded in his 80s – he is now 84. The last release was nearly five years ago, the solo piano album The Song is My Story released at the end of 2014. And before that his most recent group album was Sotho Blue, released in 2010. This new album by the South African legend was recorded in a single day last November at RAK Studios in St. John’s Wood in London.

The Balance combines old and new tunes. As ideas go, this one has quite some pedigree for Abdullah Ibrahim. As he told one interviewer (Larry Blumenfeld) recently, “Duke showed me the importance of presenting both old and new material, side by side, and of performing the older songs as if they were new and the newer ones like they were familiar.”

The older tunes include the helter-skelter Tuang Guru and, by way of complete contrast, the deeply contemplative Song for Sathima which both come from the seminal 1980s small band album Water From an Ancient Well, which also contained Ibrahim evergreens The Mountain and The Wedding; both of those re-performed on Sotho Blue. The comparison over the 30 years since Ancient Well is instructive. In Song for Sathima one notices the bigger scale. Whereas the tenor sax player on the earlier album, Ricky Ford, has an affectingly fragile tone in his short solo, on the new, beautifully arranged version Lance Bryant, no less lyrical, has the kind of assertive presence in the sound that larger halls need, and also keeps the melodic lead throughout the track. Another very appealing feature of Song for Sathima, and for much else on this album, is the clarity and vividness of the recording, engineered by Tony Platt. In particular, he has caught the colours of the sound of Will Terrill‘s drumming quite remarkably. Gearbox is an audiophile company, and it shows.

Audiences come to Ibrahim with expectations of the kind of things they will hear, and these ten tracks fulfil them. The “township vibe” is there, particularly on Jabula, which has been the main “single” promoted from the album. And jazz from the canon is there too, in Monk’s mind-bending 1952 bebop tune Skippy, with Cleave Guyton‘s piccolo playing bringing a clever touch. Ibrahim’s meditative solo playing gets two outings, on ZB2 and Tonegawa. These are short tracks, but with long arcs of concentration in both cases. With the sustain pedal down, the recording captures the long natural resonances very well. The final track The Balance has the most varied instrumental colour, with Noah Jackson switching from bass to cello for a duet with Adam Glasser on harmonica.

Like a recent solo appearance I heard and reviewed at Inntoene in Austria (reviewed here), Ibrahim is on fine form on this album. He was recently inducted as a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, and this new album conveys  that reassuring, magisterial sense that one is in the presence of a true elder statesman.

Track Listing

1 Dreamtime
2 Nisa
3 Jabula
4 Tuang Guru
5 Tonegawa
6 Song for Sathima
7 ZB2 (solo piano)
8 Skippy (Monk)
9 Devotion
10 The Balance

Personnel

Abdullah Ibrahim – piano
Lance Bryant – tenor saxophone
Andrae Murchison – trombone/trumpet
Marshall McDonald – baritone saxophone
Will Terrill – drums
Noah Jackson – bass/cello
Cleave E. Guyton – alto sax/flute/clarinet

Guests:
Alec Dankworth (bass) on Jabula and The Balance
Adam Glasser (harmonica) on The Balance

Recorded at RAK Studios, Studio 1, 26 November 2018.
Engineer Tony Platt.
Mixed by Caspar Sutton-Jones
Mastered and cut by Darrel Sheinman and Caspar Sutton-Jones at Gearbox Records.

LINK: Abdullah Ibrahim will be playing a rare solo concert at London’s Cadogan Hall on Tuesday 10th September.

The Balance is released today 28 June 2019

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