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Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya: Sotho Blue

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Considering that South African pianist/composer Abdullah Ibrahim founded his Ekaya ensemble as an anti-apartheid vehicle, Sotho Blue-a straight-ahead re-examination of Ibrahim’s older pieces in a post-apartheid context-is long overdue. Twenty years after the segregation ended, the album’s dominant moods are still relief and quiet happiness. It’s a triumph, one of the best works of Ibrahim’s career.

There are no fast or loud tunes; joy and hope are carefully contained, perhaps the most glaring difference from the fiery protestations of yore. The focus is on slow ballads and low-key arrangements like the solo piano “Abide,” Ibrahim playing with a gospel touch and unmistakable sense of valedictory, and the sweet, happy “The Wedding,” with alto saxophonist Cleave Guyton leading a four-part horn arrangement (Keith Loftis on tenor, Jason Marshall on baritone, Andrae Murchison on trombone) that maintains the lightness of a bride’s steps down the aisle. Subdued performances do not beget subdued emotions, however: The beautiful “Nisa,” which Ibrahim gives an Ellingtonian orchestration, carries in its gentle horn riffs and high, delicate piano line yesterday’s tears, today’s bliss and tomorrow’s hope.

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