It’s revealing that Abdullah Ibrahim’s first solo album for ECM has been reissued around the same time the pianist has dropped his latest ensemble affair. African Piano is almost 45 years old, but it contains the same stylistic rudiments as Mukashi: poise, insistence, lyricism. The master will be 80 in October, and his art is in refinement mode these days. The music made by Mukashi’s four instrumentalists – two cellists and a reed player join Ibrahim – has a beautiful sense of tranquility. That too, is a longtime stylistic element, but here it resounds so deeply that it almost seems to be Ibrahim’s lone point.
An atmosphere of chamber music marks the program, and it’s seductive to say the least. Like the way that John Lewis perpetually pared down his work as he got older, Ibrahim makes sure that generating grace is on top of his to-do list. So “Serenity,” heard previously on 1988’s Mindif, becomes a misty poem of rounded tones that seems to rise up from nowhere, effect an aura (it’s inspired by the arrival of daybreak), and drift away. The flute quivers, the piano tickles a few plaintive licks, and the strings are gently plucked. Buoyancy is crucial to the design, and the group never loses its balance during these fragile maneuvers. Likewise, “Matzikama” has its own inner glide that depends on the players’ ability to coalesce. Though near-static, it seems to float.
Ibrahim knows the power of hymns from his childhood days, and “Peace” is an exquisite glance over the shoulder at those venerable sounds. It starts with the piano blending church and parlor music, and like the tender swirls of sound in “Dream Time,” the strings and flute carry the melody along by entwining. Their unity speaks to the essence of the pianist’s spiritual message and superb sense of calibration. Every nuance is weighted here, and the fact that Ibrahim can integrate Vaughn Monroe’s “The Stars Will Remember” into a hushed suite of originals makes his judgment seem even wiser. As the last notes of “The Balance” fade, all that remains is the maestro’s impeccable vision.