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'The Balance': Abdullah Ibrahim Is Deeply Rooted Yet Sounds Like No One Else


This is FRESH AIR. Earlier this year, South African composer and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, once known as Dollar Brand, was enlisted into the ranks of NEA Jazz Masters. He also has a new album out. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says the new album shows off some of what makes Abdullah Ibrahim great.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Abdullah Ibrahim's "The Balance," the melody voiced by a combination you don't hear much - cello and harmonica. At 84, the South African isn't the piano dynamo he used to be. His new album "The Balance" spotlights Abdullah the master composer of melodic mood pieces like this oldie written for his wife, the singer Sathima Bea Benjamin, "Song For Sathima."


WHITEHEAD: Abdullah Ibrahim with the seven-piece band Ekaya. It's occasionally expanded to eight or nine pieces, dropping in guests like Adam Glasser on chromatic harmonica. On "The Balance," the band mostly plays new Ibrahim tunes that may recall some old ones. "Jabula," which has a terrific beat inspired by South African street music, is a light revamp of his personal standard "Jabulani." Noah Jackson is on bass - that was him before on cello - and Will Terrill on drums.


WHITEHEAD: Though Abdullah Ibrahim's band is American, the players get the South African inflections down - maybe from studying his back catalogue of similar records with lively medium-sized bands. But where some of those ensembles got a little blurry, this one is crisp and all tuned up. It's four horn players apprenticed in big bands and blend well in shifting roles.

The linchpin is saxophonist and flutist Cleave Guyton Jr., who plays lead alto with a gospel tinge. On the one tune here Abdullah didn't write - "Skippy" by one of the pianist's heroes, Thelonious Monk - Guyton blows piccolo like a South African penny whistle.


WHITEHEAD: Abdullah Ibrahim does like the flute and its various forms, partly for those happy folk music associations, but not just for that. Flute also goes with some of those mood pieces he writes, like the long-on-atmosphere "Dreamtime."


WHITEHEAD: When Abdullah Ibrahim left South Africa almost six decades ago, Duke Ellington helped launch his international career. Fair to say Duke saw something of himself in this percussive pianist whose music mirrors the lives and aspirations of his people, who can write a simple, powerful tune and who, deeply rooted though he is, sounds like nobody else. As the album "The Balance" reminds us, Abdullah Ibrahim is still all of that.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and The Audio Beat. He reviewed "The Balance," the new album by pianist Abdullah Ibrahim.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guests will be actor Geena Davis and director Maria Giese. After becoming frustrated by the lack of opportunities in Hollywood for women in front of and behind the camera, they began advocating for gender equality. Davis founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Giese's actions led to an EEOC investigation into discrimination against women directors. They're both featured in the new documentary "This Changes Everything." I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM'S "JABULA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.