Abdullah Ibrahim: Ancient Africa (Sackville/Delmark)

Britt Robson's review of pianist's 1973 solo recordings

Cover of Ancient Africa album by Abdullah Ibrahim
Cover of Ancient Africa by Abdullah Ibrahim

Abdullah Ibrahim converted to Islam nearly five years before these solo-piano recordings were captured in Toronto on Feb. 18, 1973. But Ibrahim had just come from a pilgrimage to Mecca, and the gusts of inspiration that sweep through these lengthy solo-piano excursions are from the mind and heart of the recommitted. They are certainly less pacific and austere than the bulk of his considerable output later in his career (and at age 83 he is still going strong).

Just shy of 20 minutes long, the three-part title track is dense and resonant, with after-tones that stem equally from his force of touch and his use of the sustain pedal. Ibrahim’s expansive phrases conflate sacred reverence and folk culture in a manner that is quintessentially African, and the pleasure of the mixture has him softly moaning, drawing comparisons to Keith Jarrett. Another three-part workout, “The Aloe and the Wild Rose,” is the most straight-ahead jazz on the disc, beginning with an intro that sounds like “Jitterbug Waltz” pushed through Monk’s angular maze. Ibrahim had been in exile from his native South Africa a decade when Ancient Africa was recorded, and the third and longest number, “Cherry/Bra Joe From Kilimanjaro,” is an open-hearted valentine to his native land.

The first two songs here were originally released as the album Sangoma, with the third song a part of the record African Portraits. The only previously unreleased track on this reissue is the finale, “Khotso,” a nine-minute bamboo flute and spoken-word recitation that works as a spiritual parable, although the potent flute work should win over even the non-devout.

Preview, buy or download songs from the album Ancient Africa by Abdullah Ibrahim on iTunes.