Album Review | The Balance – Abdullah Ibrahim

The 84-year-old jazz musician presents old and new material side by side on his latest album and is following it up with a solo piano offering.

Recorded in a day at RAK Studios in St John’s Wood, London, and released on Gearbox Records, The Balance is Abdullah Ibrahim’s first album in almost five years and his first album with the band Ekaya in nine years. Ibrahim is back with a bang. A second album, a solo piano offering titled Dream Time, is scheduled to follow in September on Enja Records. 

The 84-year-old, who was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in April, has clearly been busy and the results on The Balance are spectacular.

Ibrahim formed the mid-sized band Ekaya in 1983. However, his last album with the band was the richly rewarding Sotho Blue in 2010. Almost a decade separates the recordings of The Balance and Sotho Blue, yet in a way they feel like complementary halves of the same whole. 

Ibrahim recently told The Wall Street Journal newspaper from his home in Germany that it was Duke Ellington who taught him the importance of presenting old and new material side by side, “performing the older songs as if they were new and the newer ones like they were familiar”. On The Balance, this is what Ibrahim delivers.

Older compositions that audiences have known since the 1980s, like Tuang Guru and Song for Sathima, sit snugly next to new compositions such as solo piano pieces Tonegawa and ZB2

On Tuang Guru, Ibrahim and Ekaya offer up a manic free jazz take on the composition, driven by some sublime playing from the rhythm section, of bassist Noah Jackson and drummer Will Terrill. 

Song for Sathima is pure pleasure, with Ekaya’s horn section sounding like a church choir. It’s a hypnotic performance that is up there with the best versions of the tune Ibrahim has laid to tape over his lengthy career of 60 years. The choice of Tuang Guru and Song for Sathima appear instructive.

Songs reimagined

On Sotho Blue, Ibrahim re-recorded his compositions The Wedding and The Mountain, which alongside Tuang Guru and Song for Sathima, were recorded on Ibrahim’s classic 1986 album Water from an Ancient Well. All four compositions had already been reworked in 2000 for Ibrahim’s Cape Town Revisited. Now we have another reimagining of them.

Nisa from Sotho Blue also pops up on The Balance, reinforcing the link between these two albums. On the latter, Nisa is more of a late-night dream than the deep blues meditation on the former. The Balance version is more nimble, with some excellent work by Jackson and Terrill. The album is bookended by two compositions that appeared on Ibrahim’s 2013 album, Mukashi (Once Upon A Time).

Dream Time, a hauntingly beautiful composition, is resurrected as the album opener and The Balance which opens with the magnificent pairing of Adam Glasser’s harmonica and Noah Jackson’s cello, and features Cleave Guyton Jr on flutebrings the album to a close and gives it its name. Both are wonderful new interpretations.

There is only one composition that isn’t an Ibrahim original, Thelonious Monk’s bebop tune Skippy. Guyton Jr on piccolo and Marshall McDonald on baritone saxophone steal the show.

There are three solo piano pieces on The Balance: Tonegawa, named after a form of Japanese martial art, the curiously named ZB2 and the delicate Devotion. They sit so naturally alongside 30-year-old compositions, which is where the success of the album lies. 

The Balance is a late career highlight for Ibrahim, much like Sotho Blue was in 2010, an album for long-term and new fans to celebrate. But the news that we will be blessed in September with a new solo piano album, Dream Time, which is said to include recordings of the compositions Dream Time, The Balance, Nisa and Sotho Blue, makes 2019 a special year for Ibrahim fans.

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