Pianist Abdullah Ibrahim Proves Himself A One-Man Movement On 'Ancient Africa'

May 10, 2017
Originally published on May 11, 2017 7:59 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. South African pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim was known early in his career as Dollar Brand. He left South Africa in 1962 for Europe, where Duke Ellington heard and recorded him. Abdullah Ibrahim has recorded dozens of albums since on four continents with all kinds of lineups. His 1973 Toronto solo session has just been reissued. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM COMPOSITION)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Abdullah Ibrahim, 1973, from the newly reissued "Ancient Africa." Abdullah has been playing his rollicking brand of piano for so long, we may take him for granted. You can hear why Duke Ellington liked him. Duke also knew about percussive rhythm piano and personalizing traditional materials. In fact, Ellington had been young Adolph Brand's first jazz hero when he was growing up in Cape Town. Later, he'd portray a particular love of Duke's ballads. This is from Ibrahim's "The Aloe And The Wild Rose."

(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM'S "THE ALOE AND THE WILD ROSE")

WHITEHEAD: Abdullah Ibrahim is best known for playing in a more bustling, repetitive mode, where diverse influences flow together - the hymns and gospel music his grandmother taught him, the circular diddies of South African kwela and marabi pop and, further afield, the open-ended, rolling momentum of West African percussion choirs. One early album was vaguely but accurately titled "African Piano."

(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM'S "THE ALOE AND THE WILD ROSE")

WHITEHEAD: Abdullah Ibrahim's rippling sound coincided with a major trend in 1970s music, minimalism, with its own rolling rhythms and circular patterns reminding us that sometimes certain ideas are just in the air. When Abdullah got a-rumblin' (ph), his piano was like a force of nature. It seemed to play itself, an illusion that takes hard work.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM'S "THE ALOE AND THE WILD ROSE")

WHITEHEAD: At times, Abdullah Ibrahim seems to put his left hand into a trance, freeing up his right to oppose that ground beat, as if two pianos shared one keyboard. That's when the drum choir cross-rhythms get moving.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM COMPOSITION)

WHITEHEAD: Abdullah Ibrahim's music, like Duke Ellington's, resists tidy categorization. But it never feels stitched together. Those diverse strains reveal facets of his autobiography. For all the traditional elements he stuffs in there, as a pianist, he's a one-man movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM COMPOSITION)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and TONE Audio and is the author of "Why Jazz?". He reviewed "Ancient Africa," the new reissue of the 1973 solo session by pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Rhiannon Giddens. Her new album, "Freedom Highway," includes her original songs based on slave narratives. Giddens also co-founded the group the Carolina Chocolate Drops. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.