|Abdullah Ibrahim at the 2011 Moera Fetival.
Photo credit: Michael Hoefner/ Creative Commons
(Royal Festival Hall.15th November 2014. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by Alison Hoblyn)
After the week we’d had, my companion,T, and I needed a bit of peace. No-one downloading words in our ears. So, sitting with a bird’s-eye view of the Festival Hall stage we were in a place above it all. From the moment of hush (when everyone knows it’s about to begin) we were ready for something good. And the only words in the whole evening were uttered by Jumoke Fashola, introducing the legendary Abdullah Ibrahim a month on from his 80th birthday. She told us of the two-halves nature of the night; the first to be performed by his new trio – Cleave Guyton (clarinet/flute) and Noah Jackson (cello/bass) and Ibrahim himself on startlingly naked piano (no lid in sight), and the second with a larger group.
The man almost shuffled on stage, dropping sheet music as he came, but any frailty dropped away as he began to play alone. It was comfortingly familiar – melodic and meditational, rich in those heart-touching chords that are inimical to his playing. He played on through several movements for at least 30 minutes, the softness of the piece punctuated with percussive African rhythms. When the cello and flute joined him in the next pieces (including African Market, The Wedding and Duke 88) the therapy was complete; shoulders relaxed visibly all around. The African Suite themes that were revisited produced an orchestral mood, and the piano flowed over us like molten gold, silver threaded by the flute.The whole sensory experience was uplifting but not in an agitatedly, excitable way;at times the trio were pooled in purple light and the instruments were perfectly balanced. It felt like sitting on a cloud-cushion of delightful sound. And thankfully, there was rarely that jazz-goers’ interruption of clapping for solos to disturb the balm.
Collective breaths exhaled for the interval, there was time to reflect on Ibrahim’s provenance as composer of Mannenberg – which became the unofficial theme for black South Africans during the apartheid struggles. My husband had seen him in Jo’burg when he was still calling himself by the name of Dollar Brand. Ibrahim has taken the African heart and cadences to a wider audience in his 80 years; our seat neighbours last saw him in New York.
The second half had been billed by the ever-enthusiastic Fashola as ‘get up and dance to Township music’. The ensemble was now dubbed Ekaya and expanded to a heavenly-seven-strong with Laurence Bryant (tenor sax), Marshall McDonald (baritone sax), Andrae Murchison (trombone) and Will Terrill (drums) There was some sophisticated brass unison playing and Murchison on trombone produced wonderful story-telling but for me it was more mellow than dance-inducing. At times there were north African/Arabic influences – drum driven. Fine musicianship, with Ibrahim generously handing over the stage to his colleagues with just the odd, pearly-highlighted touch on the tiller from the piano.
For me, it was the intravenous infusion of heart-medicine in the first half that made me glad. It’s also good to see that advanced age allows you to talk less – but every pared down note you utter means more.
LINKS: Nelson Mandela and music – a guide/ tribute by Gwen Ansell
Abdullah Ibrahim’s Ekaya, review from 2010
'Advanced age allows you to talk less.' Really? Some musicians love to talk on stage and always have a lot to say for themselves (e.g. 88-year-old Randy Weston, second half, QEH, November 17), while other musicians dislike talking on stage and always say as little as possible (e.g. 41-year-old J D Allen, first half, QEH, November 17).
It seems sacrilegious to say so, but this was boring, boring, boring. The trio was fairly inept (like a Grade 5 exam) and Ekaya sadly lacking in spark for most of the time. Ibrahim is a great composer and musician, but he has wrapped his music in such an aura of reverence that it seems cloying and sanctimonious. Very disappointing.
I found it boring too. I'd seen him at Bath a few years ago when his performance was underwhelming and was dubious about repeating the experience, but had been persuaded by the addition of the brasses. Couldn't help comparing this to Sonny Rollins' energetic performance at the same age. Sad, because Ibrahim is a legend, but I can't help thinking that his great days are well and truly over.