8. Abdullah Ibrahim Trio and String Orchestra: “Tsakwe” (African Suite; Tiptoe, 1998)
Ibrahim’s piano trio, featuring bassist Belden Bullock and drummer George Gray, is at the center of his African Suite. That center, however, is surrounded by a lush 17-piece string orchestra (featuring members of the Youth Orchestra of the European Community). It’s one of Ibrahim’s most affecting works, with “Tsakwe” a particularly stunning example. Its tension is already ratcheted up high with Ibrahim’s very first chord, played against Gray’s conga-like drum line and subtle Bullock bass. Once the strings enter, the tension goes from high to unbearable—and only intensifies through the scary, noir-ish performance. Ibrahim keeps a light touch, just enough commentary to move things along. Even his eventual improvisation, less than a minute long, seems purpose-built to accelerate. This high drama is a rare element in Ibrahim’s late catalogue, but an extraordinarily well-designed and well-executed one.