Considering that South African pianist/composer Abdullah Ibrahim founded his Ekaya ensemble as an anti-apartheid vehicle, Sotho Blue—a straight-ahead re-examination of Ibrahim’s older pieces in a post-apartheid context—is long overdue. Twenty years after the segregation ended, the album’s dominant moods are still relief and quiet happiness. It’s a triumph, one of the best works of Ibrahim’s career.
There are no fast or loud tunes; joy and hope are carefully contained, perhaps the most glaring difference from the fiery protestations of yore. The focus is on slow ballads and low-key arrangements like the solo piano “Abide,” Ibrahim playing with a gospel touch and unmistakable sense of valedictory, and the sweet, happy “The Wedding,” with alto saxophonist Cleave Guyton leading a four-part horn arrangement (Keith Loftis on tenor, Jason Marshall on baritone, Andrae Murchison on trombone) that maintains the lightness of a bride’s steps down the aisle. Subdued performances do not beget subdued emotions, however: The beautiful “Nisa,” which Ibrahim gives an Ellingtonian orchestration, carries in its gentle horn riffs and high, delicate piano line yesterday’s tears, today’s bliss and tomorrow’s hope.
Bassist Belden Bullock is the disc’s secret weapon, contributing stealthy but superlative work with his tough-guy struts (“Calypso Minor”) and sensitive arpeggios (“Star Dance”). He and drummer George Gray are notably absent from Ibrahim’s one misstep, “Glass Enclosure”: The band elongates and elaborates Bud Powell’s already complex tune, leaving it overwrought and drained of its signature tautness. But even with that aberration, Sotho Blue belongs on every jazz fan’s shelf.