Previous projects pairing Abdullah Ibrahim in an orchestral setting have yielded wonderful results, and this collaboration with the WDR Big Band from Cologne, Germany is just as marvelous. Ibrahim's spiritually driven piano playing is at the center of WDR's expansive charts that brings the music into full flower, punchy, deep, or serene as it tends to be in spots. The material is familiar to all fans of Ibrahim's, as he brings back some older favorites, and expounds on the influence of mentors Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, with perhaps a nod to Gil Evans as well. The WDR band is loaded with fine soloists -- Paul Heller's tenor sax is particularly arresting -- and they each get a turn, but also provide the bright colors that enhance Ibrahim's music in a way small ensembles cannot. With a max level of resourcefulness, the band picked Karolina Strassmayer to lead out on piccolo for the familiar theme "Mandela," but she embellishes high-end notes with a bop style amidst the South African shuffle so identifiable with township music. That rolling train sound, accented by brushes on snare drum, also permeates another favorite, "African River," as Ibrahim's Ellington-flavored piano intro (paraphrasing "The Jeep Is Jumpin'") fires up the choo choo in steamy, subtle phrases. An incredible revisit of "Bombella" -- for the rail cars that transport migrant workers to the South African gold mines -- is a powerful musical statement, with the band roaring in full brawny and shouted-out multiple layers of a complete whole, as Ibrahim's piano conducts the punctuations and clickety-clack seam sounds. Still recalling the horrific practice of apartheid, "District Six" sports another mobile conveyance in musical terms, as bassist John Goldsby and Ibrahim's piano set up a broad blues visage, throbbing with the pain of oppression under the valve trombone of Dave Horler. There's a love ballad testimonial for Ibrahim's wife "Song for Sathima," led by alto saxophonist Heiner Wiberny, the elegant remembrance in tribute to an Ellington trombonist "For Lawrence Brown" featuring Ludwig Nuss, and two combo pieces including the solo piano "Meditation" merging with a solemn, horn-filled, light pop piece "Joan Capetown Flower," and "I Mean You/For Monk," the former in a different, lower key than the original, the latter splattered with various solo sections. As a fuller representation of his straight-ahead jazz side, "Excursions" (subtitled "Masters & Muses") is a bouncy swinger with a simple melody that changes into a waltz. Well into his seventies, Abdullah Ibrahim seems to always find the right accompanists to broaden the horizons of his magical music, and with Bombella he's done it again, perhaps better than ever.
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AllMusic Review by Michael G. Nastos