Veteran South African pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim’s solo performance at our US/EU Jazz – Blues Festival 2023 showed a livelier, more energetic touch than we’ve seen recently as he explored a stream of melodies with exquisite touch and passion.
Performing solo, the 89-year-old South African pianist treats melody with reverence – then instinctively, skilfully dismantles it. There is a quality to pianist Abdullah Ibrahim’s music that makes it sound like a slow, sad goodbye. That may be because he spent the majority of the 1960s to the 1990s in self-imposed exile from his home country of South Africa – a protest against the racial segregation of apartheid – or it may be to do with the soft, downtempo way he picks out each note hunched behind his grand piano, improvising as if he is forever playing towards the end of a phrase.
Now 89, Ibrahim has had a more varied career than most, pioneering the “Cape jazz” style of the 1960s, heavily influenced by the likes of Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington, before moving to New York to collaborate with Ellington himself and even leading the Duke Ellington Orchestra under his previous stage name, Dollar Brand, then converting to Islam, then returning to South Africa in the 70s to write Mannenberg, which became one of the most famous anti-apartheid anthems of the era.
Now in his ninth decade, Ibrahim has surely earned the right to do it his way – which when playing solo means totally acoustic, him and a piano, and letting the music do the talking. After a moment of confusion when a stage technician received a round of applause that was surely intended for someone else, Ibrahim walked slowly onto the stage in his customary baggy cotton clothes, settled at the piano and embarked on a journey through his own musical heritage and history.
With his horn-heavy band Ekaya, Ibrahim has now taken to playing shows as an elder statesman, opening with a brief solo section before letting his band fly, his direction subtle yet pervasive. He even stands behind his band for their final bows, pushing the younger generations forward insistently. It is a rare and revealing sight, then, to see Ibrahim perform an entire show solo on piano in the imperious setting of London’s Cadogan Hall. He is an artist who has made his career as a writer of ensemble music, finding his strength in harmony; here he barely glances at his sheet music, head bowed as he feels his way instinctively over the keys.
It is emotional music but there is a sprightliness to Ibrahim’s playing, as he bounces gently on his seat and mouths along through his phrases – some of the more guttural vocalisations audible over the hushed reverence of the crowd. It is a show of two halves, yet the work is a single seamless improvisation, a palimpsest of his five-decade career. He channels Monk in bursts of a heavy, repetitive left hand, rhythmically hammering out jarring individual bass notes, while the right plays through freely, touching on shades of Bill Evans’ modality before landing on his own fractal phrasing.
The music is utterly distinctive, meditative, with almost healing powers of tension and resolution. Tonight Ibrahim showed his jazz connections to Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. Ellington once told the young Ibrahim that “You’re blessed because you come from the source”, and the musical connections Ibrahim makes between African and jazz traditions are compelling and convincing.
Along with other jazz piano legends’ influence, Ibrahim weaves his own compositions into the tapestry of this recital. There is the plaintive refrain of The Mountain, shades of Sotho Blue, the tender romance of Star Dance and bursts of euphoric major chords and optimism from The Wedding. Each melody is played with due reverence, and then swiftly dismantled into something entirely new: the hallmark of a true improviser, finding pockets of originality without even the need for a response from other players. (There are certainly other pianists in attendance – most notably Zoe Rahman, nodding along and looking keenly for a glimpse of his hands.)
This is a fluid performance, one which flows through its two hour-long halves without feeling as if a single composition has passed to a discernible end point. This performance may have sounded like a goodbye, but it doesn’t feel final. For someone as graciously talented as Ibrahim, there is always much more playing to be done, and more hands and minds to be inspired. Instead, it is an inshallah, a “see you again”.
Ibrahim played for 90 minutes in two stretches, the first hour unbroken, then a final half hour. He showed a total mastery of dynamics – while his compositions are often based on simple repeating phrases, he never played the same phrase twice; there were always subtle stretches of time, volume, attack, sustain – this was a masterclass of understated brilliance, turning every moment into an exploration rather than a statement. What did he play? It hardly seemed to matter, but The Mountain, District Six, The Wedding and pieces from his 2008 Senzo album all made appearances. And when he hit the final major chord the entire evening seemed to resolve – that was it, he knew it and we knew it too.
After this sustained period of attention and meditation, the applause started steadily at first, then rose to a crescendo as people gathered themselves together and embraced what we’d all experienced. No encore, no words, much beaming and gesturing.
This is not like any other concert experience. As there is no amplification at all, the music is quieter then we are used to and so one needs to ‘get one’s ear in’ at the start. The music flows from one tune to another, linking passages of improvisation with the hypnotic patterns and harmonies of Ibrahim’s compositions. The overall tone is gentle, but Ibrahim showed greater power and chromatic exploration than at his previous solo shows in the UK. The bass in particular is key, underpinning everything with left hand chords – Ibrahim must use the bottom octave of the keyboard more than anyone else around.
Unfortunately, the video is not from our festival, but it was performed with the same composition and the same composition.