Abdullah Ibrahim - Biography

South African-born pianist Abdullah Ibrahim is one of the most sonorous, unique and gifted voices in all of jazz, and he has expanded the vocabulary of the genre as much as any artist working today. His performance idiom is a wondrous, pan-global mélange of styles. Through a winding, 60-year career, his facile playing has echoed with the spirits of traditional jazz, bebop, folk, African American gospel, ragas and various forms of Indian classicism, free improvisation, and indigenous South African musics, that in turn reflect back to American jazz, ragtime, and blues. Ibrahim’s life has been equally kaleidoscopic. He was a participant in the first jazz album recorded by South African musicians; he was discovered and mentored by Duke Ellington; he played in ensembles with titans like Elvin Jones and Don Cherry; and, since his return to South Africa in the 1990s, Ibrahim has seen his work presented by orchestras — including a symphonic setting in honor of the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela.

He was born Adolph Johannes Brand in 1934, in Cape Town, and was studying piano by the age of 9. Brand adopted the stage name Dollar Brand, and was playing professionally by the age of 15. In the early 1960’s Brand moved to Europe, with his singer-wife, Sathima Bea Benjamin where Duke Ellington encountered him at a club in Zurich, and offered to sponsor him to a major record label, resulting in two albums: Duke Ellington presents The Dollar Brand Trio (1964 Reprise/Warner Bros.) and A Morning in Paris (2008 Ekapa), which was billed to Sathima Bea Benjamin, and remained on the shelf until recently, which is a shame. Both albums shine with innovative flair and charm. Ellington continued to support Brand, securing him a coveted spot at the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival, and allowing Brand to lead the Duke Ellington Orchestra for several performances in 1966. Brand subsequently joined ensembles with Elvin Jones, Don Cherry, and Gato Barbieri, before deciding that from then on, he would only lead his own ensembles. He also converted to Islam, changing his name to Abdullah Ibrahim.

Ibrahim came into his own in the 1970s and 1980s, when his sprawling influences and commanding, hypnotic style were recognized as a profoundly valuable addition to the cannon of jazz music. Some of the key recordings from Ibrahim’s ‘70s and ‘80s efforts include: Autobiography (1979 Plainsphere Records); African Dawn (1982 Enja); and Water from an Ancient Well (1985 Tiptoe). In 1990, Ibrahim left New York and returned to Cape Town, and was welcomed with open arms as a cultural ambassador worthy of the new, post-apartheid South Africa. African Symphony (2002 Enja) is a lush, orchestrated version of Ibrahim’s compositions, arranged by Daniel Schnyder. Perhaps none of his recent albums sums up Abdulah Ibrahim’s eclectic vision and talents as well as African Horns (2003 Camden). Horns and saxophones give a buoyant call-and-response cheer, as American improv and African rhythms meet, intermingle, and strengthen each other in the process. However, purists will find it hard to resist Senzo (2008 Sunnyside), a series of two dozen solo piano pieces that glide from Township romps to the blues to warm, natural idylls. It’s a reassuring document, confirming that Ibrahim remains a versatile and inspirational artist well into the 21st century.

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