Sonic Alchemy: Abdullah Ibrahim’s “3″ is a timeless fusion of jazz, classical, and South African magic

The redoubtable South African pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim—formerly known as Dollar Brand—was born in 1934. But well into the 21st century, Ibrahim is still going strong as is evidenced by 3, where he is joined by Cleave Guyton on flute, piccolo, and clarinet, and Noah Jackson on bass and cello. The sprawling release features six studio cuts and more than a dozen live tracks recorded at a 2023 concert at London’s Barbican Centre. The trio plays a kind of chamber music that deftly blends jazz, classical, and South African music. At times, Ibrahim lays out for long stretches or adds just a few choice notes here and there, but on “Reprise 1″ and “Reprise 2,” two solo piano outings that each run fifteen minutes, he turns expansive. Over their course, he moves through several contrasting sections that incorporate Eastern contours, gospel cadences, balladry, blues, and other elements into his alluring flow. 

“Mindif” was originally recorded for the soundtrack of the 1988 Claire Denis film, Chocolat. After a lovely, if brief, piano intro, cello and flute play the melancholy theme; later, the composition takes on a lush quality. It’s instructive to compare the studio and live versions that appear here: the former has a soothing, burnished sound while the live track features slightly rougher textures that enliven the piece.

In addition to offering a trove of Ibrahim originals, includes Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” and Thelonious Monk’s “Skippy.” The pianist mostly sits out the Ellington classic where Guyton states the melody on flute and then takes flight, moving nicely over Jackson’s deep tones.  The unaccompanied version of “Giant Steps” finds Jackson deftly navigating the tune’s famous sequence of changes. “Skippy,” one of Monk’s trickier works, features playful piccolo driven by walking bass. 

Abdullah Ibrahim: Tiny Desk (Home) Concert

NPR Music

There are several gems on 3, but if you had to pick a single cut, it might be “Water from an Ancient Well.” Multivarious flute, soulful bass, and gorgeous piano mark this standout, one sharpened by the edgy blues feeling.