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Abdullah Ibrahim: African Magic

Annotator Peter Pannke goes to some lengths to try and convey the magical, nonrational and non-Western nature of the spell that Abdullah Ibrahim casts on this delicious live recording of his trio. Pannke’s attempt may seem a dangerous exercise, but it is certainly more sensible than trying to elucidate the music in technical terms. For anyone who has seen Ibrahim recently, this disc captures the feel of his current presentation very well.

When he really burst on the international consciousness some 30 years ago, Ibrahim could generate more musical complexity as a soloist than many piano trios could ever dream of exhibiting. His extended flights often built to dizzying heights as he superimposed two or three different rhythms and as many implied tonalities. More than one of his fans has noted that the maestro doesn’t get into that high of a gear anymore, and if pyrotechnics were all he has to offer then his aging would be a great loss. But Ibrahim seems more focused than before on less obvious things. Perfect voicings, gorgeous melodies and a finely tuned dynamic sense are among the tools that help him convey playfulness, joy, deep yearning or deeper serenity according to the moment’s need. He has never been better at telling his story, and he still elevates the spirit of his audience as only a master can.

The difference between his current and earlier approaches is easy to overstate, reminding me of a chef who stops using so much hot sauce over the years. The subtler flavors just come through that much stronger. As he has for some time, Ibrahim presents his music in a sort of free-associated medley, but he tends to move more quickly from theme to theme. Fans will recognize many pieces from old recordings (“Blue Bolero,” “Blues for a Hip King,” “Black Lightning,” etc) but there are some nice surprises, like the very hip allusion to “Moten Swing.”

Ibrahim’s young trio-mates, bassist Belden Bullock and drummer Sipho Kunene, provide truly exemplary support. In some ways they may be the best-suited sidemen he has worked with.

Originally Published