The man once known as Adolphus “Dollar” Brand took several decades, countries, and even incarnations of himself to develop the style that is now immediately identifiable as his own. He assimilated classical music from Bach to Debussy, ragtime, swing and bebop (Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk remain his indelible idols), the worship music of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (his first teacher). He fused them, in increasingly complex and overt ways, with South African musical traditions past and present. If what he arrived at is what his former music director, trombonist Horace Alexander Young, accurately calls “holistic, contemplative improvisational jazz music of the piano,” it only arose after he’d mastered the many nuances of the jazz idiom. Here are 10 pieces, in chronological order, that document that journey.
1. The Jazz Epistles: “Scullery Department” (The Complete Recordings; Trunk, 2014 [originally recorded January 22, 1960])
Already subversive in their very existence, the Jazz Epistles—South Africa’s first significant modern jazz ensemble—made “Scullery Department,” from their trailblazing debut LP Verse 1, their clandestine protest against apartheid. The tune (by alto saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi) bears a more-than-passing resemblance to Oscar Pettiford’s “Bohemia After Dark,” but it also bears the rhythmic hallmarks of what would soon be called Afro-jazz, especially in the interlocking polyrhythms of its opening theme (with Brand, bassist Johnny Gertze, and drummer Makaya Ntshoko playing in three and the horns in four). Brand takes the last solo, which impressively threads the needle between the two time signatures and also displays his early debt to Thelonious Monk in both voicings and phrasing. It’s a benchmark of South African jazz. Abdullah Ibrahim/Dollar Brand’s legacy begins here.