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Abdullah Ibrahim at 80

EkayaAbdullah Ibrahim opened last night’s concert at the Royal Festival Hall with the sort of extended solo-piano reverie for which he has long been celebrated, dipping reflectively in and out of various themes, occasionally hinting at the beautifully harmonised hymn tunes that bring such balm to his listeners’ hearts. Then the great South African did something completely different, introducing a new trio in which he is joined by Cleave Guyton on flute and clarinet and Noah Jackson on cello.

For the next half an hour or so they performed a series of gentle miniatures, containing little improvisation but concentrating on the close inspection of a limited tonal palette when applied to an equally restricted emotional range: the tempos were slow to medium, the dynamic range seldom venturing beyond a polite murmur. It was like walking slowly past a series of small, pale-hued watercolours of the same landscape, viewed from slightly different vantage points. That doesn’t sound very exciting. But it contained enough of Ibrahim’s seed to hold the attention, even in the occasional moments when the intonation of the cellist or the clarinetist wavered slightly.

The second half of this EFG London Jazz Festival concert saw the three men (with Guyton switching to alto saxophone and Jackson moving to double bass) joined by the other members of the latest edition of Ekaya, the septet whose membership has shifted on a fairly regular basis since Ibrahim created it around 30 years ago: Andrae Murchison (trombone), Lance Bryant (tenor saxophone), Marshall McDonald (baritone saxophone) and Will Terrill (drums).

The concert had been introduced by a Radio London presenter who promised the audience that they were in for a helping of townships jazz, suggesting that dancing would be on the agenda. But that is not what Ekaya do. Their music is characterised by an air of restraint that guides its lyrical exploration of the timbres created by the combination of its four horns.

It was fascinating to hear the softly stabbing figures of “Nisa” played by this line-up, in which Bryant occasionally stepped forward to reveal himself as a front-rank improviser of concise inventiveness and great authority. Confounding stereotypes, the stealthy “Calypso Minor” — which first appeared in Ibrahim’s soundtrack for Claire Denis’s 1990 film No Fear, No Die (S’en fou  la mort) — could have been something cooked up by, say, Johnny Mandel for a Hollywood thriller in the 1950s.

At times throughout the set there were hints of the bejewelled miniatures created by Ellington’s small groups of the ’30s. And when the rhythm section laid out on an acapella version of “The Wedding”, the mind turned back to the horns-only version of “Abide With Me” recorded by Thelonious Monk. In his brief piano opening to the encore, as if to reaffirm his allegiances, Ibrahim alluded briefly to Monk’s “Crepuscule With Nellie” and Ellington’s introduction to “Take the ‘A’ Train”.

Like all great jazz musicians, Abdullah Ibrahim metastasised the sources of his inspiration in the process of developing his own voice. At 80 he remains one of the most powerful and distinctive composer-performers in jazz, even when the dancing is being done in your head.

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. #

    I have only seen him once – about 20 years ago. There was less ‘miniaturist’ material and what I remember most of all were great waves coming out the piano – both rippling and thunderous: a joy.

    November 16, 2014
  2. George Foster #

    I am reluctant to be too negative about the Abdullah Ibrahim concert, and have to confess that I can’t recall the last time I heard him live. However, while I found restraint, subtlety and virtuosity I didn’t find passion or, that most important of the elements of jazz, what Whitney Balliet characterised as “the sound of surprise”. Surprise is one of the great pleasures of jazz (and other art forms). In music it’s the sudden unleashing of emotion by the unexpectedness of the next part of a musical sequence. (Think about Louis on “Potato Head Blues” or Tony Williams’ eruption behind Miles’ solo on “In A Silent Way” or Eric Dolphy’s octave jumps.)

    Passion, surprise and restraint are not mutually exclusive. I remember, for example Keith Jarrett 3 years ago in the same hall playing “Answer Me, My Love” with a simplicity and intensity that brought tears to the eyes of half the audience. That was in a trio concert with a variety of material and its impact was partly as a result of the context of other material in the concert in which it was performed.

    Ibrahim’s solo introduction to the first half hinted at a variety of styles and degrees of emotional intensity which rarely re-emerged, except fleetingly in the tenor and trombone solos. To me, the whole concert had an unresolved feeling about it – a situation made worse by the crassness of the BBC “celeb” who introduced the event. (I hope that the organisers take note).

    It’s a comment on the music played that we were both thinking of comparisons rather than taking it on its own terms. Like you I was thinking of film and TV scores as I listened – it had that feeling at times of perfectly played but bland material which Keith Jarrett once memorably described as the aural equivalent of being pelted with cotton wool balls. I was also thinking, like you, of the Ellington small groups but in context of the Mingus homages to them, where the surprise comes from the lack of restraint – a hint of Brechtian exaggeration in approach, of going over the top (e.g. Charlie Mariano’s allusions to Johnny Hodges on “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady”) which serve to emphasise that what is being played is not a recreation but a celebration. But celebrations, however restrained, have to show more exuberance than I witnessed at last night’s concert.

    November 16, 2014
  3. Graham Jack #

    One should pause before criticising a legend, and an 80-year old to boot… But I can’t express how dissapointed I was with this gig. Can’t fault the band with him, but he basically tinkled a six bar intro to each number – ‘dispassionately’ was the word that came to my mind – and then left them to it. Not a single solo!, never louder than piano. Might as well have put his feet up on the keyboard. And as for the intro lady’s promise that we would be dancing in the aisles to ‘township jazz’ – Luton Town would be more African than what we were offered.

    Wasted my 30 quid.

    November 16, 2014
  4. Mick Steels #

    I think when a musician reaches the veteran stage critical analysis can be somewhat kind and forgiving. Anyone who remembers the shambles that was the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1973, on his last tour, would probably agree. Even the much revered and sadly missed Kenny Wheeler had allowances made for his age. It is very difficult to measure performances when the great musicians are no longer at their peak but still performing. When assessing Max Roach’s later work this was a dilemma which now would also seem to apply to Ornette & Rollins.

    November 17, 2014
  5. I wasn’t there, so can’t assess the merit of the music on the night. Or lack of essential elements in the music, as a couple above (who were indeed there) have indicated.

    But in general terms, I feel that it would be asking a lot for an 80-year-old to drive on a small chamber jazz group with timeless passionate fire from the piano and soprano sax, as seems to have been missed by those disappointed. One might contrast the astonishing octogenarian Lee Konitz – but Lee is a beguiling force of nature, art and science (though thankfully only very briefly, also Scientology). His undying enthusiasm, curiosity, creativity and hwyl are a staggering one-off.

    Bear in mind also that AI has attempted for many years to find a due synthesis of desire and spiritual calm, in accordance with his religious beliefs, and in accordance with his ripening age. It is some time, I think, since he let it rip. (Though others have done that in his larger aggregations over the years.)

    I can understand the disappointment of those who paid money to see and hear “water from an ancient well” being pumped to the surface with mighty affective power, and ageless tensile muscular strength to go with it.

    But I am also reminded of an Aesop parable. For those who feel they were robbed of their 20 quid.

    Ibrahim has made an immense contribution to jazz in his native land, and much to the history of music internationally. Particularly in a small-ensemble, quiet-instrument setting, it is a bit hard to expect For John Coltrane II, Jabulani, or even Bombella from him at this stage, no?

    November 17, 2014
  6. Mark King #

    He’s 80, and last year his wife of nearly 50 years died. I’m sorry he conned you out of your 30 quid by continuing to play shows when he’s incapable of thrilling you.

    November 17, 2014
  7. George Foster #

    My comments were about the music I heard in the context of one concert. I was attempting to make connections between what I heard and general music and aesthetic issues, mainly about musical expectation and it’s resolution – the ” Sound of Surprise”. I think age, personal circumstances and individual history were not relevant to the issues I raised (whereas the erroneous announcement was). It’s a deliberately focussed (some might say blinkered) approach but it does try to deal with the music performed rather than a nebulous range of factors.

    November 17, 2014
  8. #

    Very well put – I thought – me with my Freedom Pass – that I’d got onto an Age Concern blog or some such…. I saw John Lee Hooker when he was well into his 70s and still getting it up.

    November 17, 2014
  9. Richard Harris #

    It’s a really interesting debate with no easy answers. And don’t forget the number of people who go to gigs quietly marketed as ” prob your chance to see…X” so they can tick them off their boast list. “The last time I saw Dexter…”

    But hopefully the thing about jazz is that, subject to technique/facility etc, you can adjust your approach to reflect your “maturity”. Its about who you are at any one time. Going “minimal” may then be an option and very often is. What must be a living hell in other forms is having to bang out the same stuff for 50 years or so, night after night. Jerry Lee Lewis and “Great Balls of fire”?

    Human Rights Watch should be on the case.

    November 17, 2014
  10. What interesting comments, even though I profoundly disagree with George Foster and Graham Jack. I paid £30 for my ticket, too, Graham, and even though I didn’t get what I got from Abdullah Ibrahim when he was in his thirties and forties, I was happy to be given something different. Maybe that was the surprise, George.
    For me the whole evening came into the category of “late work”: an individual’s artistry modified by the effects of the ageing process. Ibrahim seemed quite healthy at 80, his piano-playing lacked nothing in terms of precision, and his direction of the ensembles showed a concern for detail. But clearly he no longer feels like “thundering” (to use Paul Tickell’s word). I’m happy to accept that, and to find compensation in the other virtues of his music.
    Incidentally, I reprinted my description of an Ibrahim performance during the Thundering Years in a piece on Ornette Coleman’s SoHo loft here:, and a tangentially related piece on Lee Konitz’s late work here:

    November 17, 2014
    • Jeff Gifford #

      I’ll take an artist playing in the moment anytime. Even when the artist’s moment is a conflagration of my expectations going in. It is savory, wonder-full & unforgettable when the distance between an artist & listener disappears. Also rare. To achieve a similar kind of transcendence when little or notnothing is as anticipated takes work.

      November 17, 2014
  11. Matthew Wright #

    The problem with seeing performers of a certain age is that whilst the memory of previous performances may spring to mind, it is not always beneficial, given the potent mixture of nostalgia, expectation and contemporary reality. Times change; musical directions change; audiences change.
    I didn’t go to the concert, favouring the alternative venue of Cafe Oto, where Peter Brotzmann, Steve Noble and Jason Adasiewicz made the foundations shake, as expected – no “surprise” there, although there was an element of it in a brief mellow Ben-Websterish interlude (inevitably his co-conspirators soon put Brotzmann back on track).
    However, we are talking about the younger set…..Brotzmann is a mere 73.

    November 17, 2014
  12. geoffn #

    Curious, this age business.

    At Hammersmith last Friday I heard a spritely Tony Kinsey (87), followed on stage by the bassist Flo Moore, Kinsey’s junior by the best part of 70 years. Both were excellent. And last night at the QEH, a fine duo performance by Randy Weston and Billy Harper, whose combined age is 159. There was no shortage of energy or stamina from either player.

    I’d like to add Dr John (74) to my evidence for the defence, but at the Barbican on Saturday the sound engineer chose to smother his piano and much of the band with thunderous bass n’ drums. Now that would have justified a refund.

    November 18, 2014
    • Mmm. At the risk of becoming a bore on this subject, I’d say that Abdullah Ibrahim didn’t lack energy: it was just channeled in a direction at variance from the one some of his listeners were expecting. Sorry to hear about Dr John. What kind of a barbarian could bring themselves to obscure his piano playing?

      November 18, 2014
    • deepindercheema #

      I have just been looking at Jazz Praises by Mike Garrick on the enthusiasts ‘Airborne’ label of many years ago. I am reminded that about this time last year I clocked that Django’s old bassist Coleridge Goode had just entered his 100th year. I checked and indeed on 29th Nov 2014 he made it and is still sprightly into his 101st.

      January 2, 2015
  13. BT Email #

    Seem to have lost email contact having lost the latest postings. Do I need to rejoin or will normal service be resumed! Can’t possibly miss the highlights of the year.


    Sent from my iPad


    November 30, 2014

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