African Magic

Pianist and South African jazz icon Abdullah Ibrahim made a name for himself playing the jazz of his native Cape Town, a style that takes elements from the Cape’s diverse musical traditions — Zulu, Khoi-San, Malay, South Asian, European, and South African-style spirituals — and combines them to the beat of American jazz.

On African Magic, the roots that feed to rollicking township sound are close to the surface in an hour-long medley of 20-odd pieces from Ibrahim’s classic songbook, recorded live in Berlin in July 2001.

With bassist Belden Bullock and drummer Sipho Kunene, Ibrahim glides effortlessly from Cape Town shebeen jive to worldly concert jazz to warm-voiced blues sermons. He alternates between sunny, wide-open chords and angular, weightless runs. Bullock’s instrument has the silvery tone favored by bassists like John Patitucci and Larry Grenadier. Kunene keeps precise and unintrusive time. Bassist and drummer never stumble as Ibrahim slips without pause from tune to tune, often making only passing reference to melodies before moving on.

The overall feel is cool, even sedate; Ibrahim seems to prefer calm, articulate and elegant melodies over transcendental hollering. Solos definitely take a back seat here, though Ibrahim allows himself a few finger-splaying runs on “For Coltrane” and Bullock and Kunene stretch out a bit on “Tswake / Royal Blue.”

The high points include “District Six,” a sterling example of the chugging township beat and a tribute to the vibrant black Cape Town quarter that was South Africa’s answer to Harlem until it was razed by the apartheid regime. “Tuang Guru” begins with a hushed, mysterious reference to both the tango and the music of the Cape’s Malay orchestras, blooms into a light but driving up-tempo swing, then softens into the easy blues ballad, “Joan, Cape Town Flower.” And on “Duke 88” Ibrahim pays homage to old friend and mentor Duke Ellington; the song features the album’s tightest swing and a spotless, articulate solo from Bullock.

It’s a small disappointment that Ibrahim chooses not to solo more. He might be expected to let a little more hang out, especially for a live recording. But as another listener pointed out, the guy is pushing 70; if he doesn’t feel like playing fiery solos anymore, he’s probably earned the right to sit out. That’s part of being a living jazz legend.

E-mail Ian M. LeBlanc at [email protected].

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