Review: Abdullah Ibrahim’s Ekaya

Abdullah Ibrahim’s Ekaya
( Abdullah Ibrahim piano; Belden Bullock bass; George Gray drums; Cleave Guyton alto sax/flute; Keith Loftis tenor sax; Andrae Murchison trombone; Jason Marshall baritone sax. Barbican, March 30th 2010. Photo from Gateshead by Mark Savage)

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The Ibrahim discography is rich with previous flowerings of this septet project. A quick recce gives Ekaya (1983), African River (1989), both seemingly long-deleted, and Water from an Ancient Well (2003). The word Ekaya means “home.”

With these projects, one thing seems inevitable. The passage of time carries the implication that Ibrahim’s six sidemen, like policemen, will tend to get younger relative to the master. So the very fine musicians who form the rest of the current band put Ibrahim increasingly into a role which he evidently relishes, and carries off with style -a perfectly cut suit – and grace. Call this role “madiba” in Xhosa, or “mwalimu” in Swahili, Ibrahim’s public demeanour is increasingly that of a teacherly elder statesman. But his gentle piano playing with its long melodic arcs and occasional calls to attention still mesmerises and silences entire audiences, even in a 1900-seater venue.

Home implies nostalgia, and the core tempo of numbers like The Wedding have a tendency to be unhurried, many of the arrangements have sustained four-part brass chorale writing which can only be played 100% in tune. But let the players cut loose, and the level of energy and antics and musicianship and improvising coming from Ibrahim’s band is extraordinary. All of them seem to do perfect takes of every number.

If the buzz afterwards was mainly about New York-based trombonist Andrae Murchison, then the rest of the band did not have a weak link. They were on stage for well over two hours without interval, and the capacity crowd at the Barbican cheered them to the rafters with a standing ovation.

The same band plays the Anvil Theatre in Basingstoke tonight. I kid you not.

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