Abdullah 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.