Many things have changed since the founding of pianist/composer Abdullah Ibrahim s Ekaya ensemble. This mid-sized jazz ensemble, whose name means home, presented Ibrahim s most powerful musical statements during an important time of protest against Apartheid in his native South Africa. Sotho Blue, Ibrahim and Ekaya s new recording on Sunnyside/Intuition, shows a new side of the ensemble as compositions of the past evolve new and more promising depictions of Ibrahim s home.
Ibrahim hardly needs introduction. He has been an important musician since his debut in the 1950s in South Africa (using the stage name Dollar Brand) as a member of the legendary Jazz Epistles with Hugh Masekela, Kippie Moeketsi and Jonas Gwangwa. Ibrahim left South Africa for Europe to escape Apartheid and became an outspoken activist against the inhumanities suffered by the millions of his homeland. Well known as both a bandleader and solo artist, Ibrahim has become a favorite of jazz listeners for his ruminative piano playing and folk inspired compositions that echo the vocal tradition of South Africa.
Ibrahim s Ekaya ensemble originally convened in 1983. This midsized group featured a strong, unique lineup of reed players Ricky Ford, Carlos Ward, Charles Davis, trombonist Dick Griffin, drummer Ben Riley and either bassist Cecil McBee or David Williams. The four-horn lineup echoes the harmonies of vocal ensembles popular in South Africa during Ibrahim s youth. Ekaya recorded Ekaya and Water From An Ancient Well for the Ekapa record label. The ensemble proved to be one of Ibrahim s most popular and he has kept it as one of his vehicles for presenting his music, though not with the same musicians. The capable replacements that play in the current version of Ekaya include bassist Belden Bullock, drummer George Gray, alto saxophonist/flutist Cleave Guyton, tenor saxophonist Keith Loftis, trombonist Andrae Murchison and baritone saxophonist Jason Marshall.
The passing years have seen change in areas concerning Ibrahim and the Ekaya ensemble. Most importantly, Apartheid has been abolished and a new government celebrates new achievements on the global stage. Thus music that had been intended as protest has taken on new meaning. Celebration, hope and meditative calm dominate where there was once angst. The compositions revisited on Sotho Blue seem minimalistic in contrast to stormier early incarnations. This doesn t detract from the music but only deepens its character, closer to what is heard in Ibrahim s legendary solo piano performances.
Ibrahim s intention to revisit the past leads him to rearranging compositions that are contemporary jazz classics. The first tune Calypso Minor from the soundtrack to the French film No Fear, No Die (which he scored in 1991) gets recast as a methodically laid back head-nodder with punchy horns. The noir-ish Sotho Blue follows with a sax led melody and cool horn swells highlighted with Ibrahim s own piano flourishes. Abide is a solo piano meditation on a gospel inspired theme. The horns return on Nisa (another composition written for No Fear, No Die) accompanying an off kilter rhythmic piano melody followed by an exceptional round of solos. The Mountain and The Wedding are two of Ibrahim s most beloved themes and get lovely new treatments by the ensemble. Glass Enclosure is a composition of the legendary Bud Powell, one of Ibrahim s heroes, and Ibrahim provides a lovely tribute with declaratory, twisting horn and tender piano lines. Star Dance is a slow ballad led by a lovely tenor sax melody. The record rounds off with Joan Capetown Flower (Emerald Bay), featuring a singing alto sax melody over a beautiful harmonic bed and a shuffling rhythm, providing a feeling of contentedness and warmth that is predominant throughout the album.
Ekaya, meaning home, was the name of the brightly soulful ensemble introduced by the great South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim on a 1983 album, now out of print. Sotho Blue, due out on Intuition/Sunnyside on Tuesday, features a mellowed-out successor to that group, with different musicians and an air of dignified reflection. Some of Mr. Ibrahim s songs are arranged as chorales, with hymnal voicings for three saxophones and trombone. Other pieces receive the ministrations of a rhythm section, suggesting late-period Duke Ellington with a languid backbeat. The opener, Calypso Minor, begins with just bass and drums on a stark, nearly plodding groove, before the horns bleat the simplest of melodies, phrasing behind the beat: funk without toil.
- Nate Chinen --NY Times - Apr. 1, 2011