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Abdullah Ibrahim: African Symphony

The information provided in the liner booklet to this CD is exasperating in its omissions. There is no full telling of the story behind African Symphony, which is that this 1998 recording by Abdullah Ibrahim’s trio and the 70-piece Munchner Rundfunkorchester is a remake of a 1997 Enja recording by the pianist called African Suite. Daniel Schnyder, who arranged both albums, decided on the redo because the 20-piece string ensemble employed on the earlier album “did not…provide enough dynamics and colors.” The notes also fail to point out that the material (repeated almost exactly on the two albums) is not an integrated “symphony” but a collection of some of Ibrahim’s best-known compositions. There is also no explanation for the long delay in releasing this music.

But the good news is that Enja did release it, and, liner note quibbles aside, it is a beautifully realized whole and a major addition to Ibrahim’s distinguished body of recorded work. This project is built on a paradox: the idea that a large-scale African landscape can best be expressed musically in the most Germanic of media, the full romantic orchestra. Schnyder employs a sonic palette closely associated with Bruckner, Mahler and Strauss.

It works because Ibrahim’s eclecticism extends far beyond his African roots and encompasses American jazz and blues, Arabic influences, English choral and European romantic music. (Schnyder points out that, as a master of suspense and musical space, Ibrahim is a great “rest composer” in the tradition of Bach and Beethoven.) It also works because Schnyder’s arrangements are deeply in touch with Ibrahim’s belief in the hypnotic, cathartic, healing power of music. The huge ensemble never overwhelms or intrudes. It surrounds Ibrahim’s trio (with Marcus McLaurine on bass and George Gray on drums) with airy, translucent elaborations that add scale and texture and fascinating detail to this varied fabric of incantations. Pieces like “Damara Blue” and “Mountain in the Night” and “The Call” and “Mindif” possess the special counterpoise of melodic grace and gravity that gives Ibrahim’s music its power. These songs have all been heard on previous Ibrahim recordings, but they have never sounded more resonant, more meaningful than here.

Originally Published