|Abdullah Ibrahim and Ekaya in Gateshead in 2010
Photo credit Mark Savage
Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya
(Royal Festival Hall, 14 November 2017. EFG LJF. Review by Leah Williams)
This concert was originally programmed as a rare opportunity to see The Jazz Epistles’ two iconic figures — trumpeter Hugh Masekela and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim — together on stage. The line-up sadly had to change due to Masekela’s ill health and, instead, Ibrahim alone performing alongside his sextet Ekaya (which means “homeland”) awaited a packed out auditorium at the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall.
The great South African pianist, now aged 83, had decided that the show should go on, quite rightly still keen to celebrate the landmark music that he and Masekela made together. The Jazz Epistles’ one and only album, recorded in 1960, had only 500 copies pressed but went onto become perhaps the most important jazz album in South Africa and is still revered to this day. Its rich, innovative music brought together mainstream jazz and South African sounds against a backdrop of the turbulent sociopolitical times, inextricably entwined with the struggles and horrors of apartheid. Music and messages not to be forgotten.
As the evening began, Ibrahim walked on stage unaccompanied to begin playing alone. It was a beautifully poignant and understated opening piece, the layers of which unfolded gently as first cello and flute, and then drums and horns, joined the stage. A special opener for what promised the be a memorable concert.
However, the night took a slightly unexpected focus as it became progressively apparent that we’d be hearing a lot more from Ekaya than from Ibrahim himself. After his initial solo, there was an obvious lack of involvement from the star. Although he sat in the spotlight throughout and was obviously caught up in and involved with the music, he mainly just played to open and close the pieces with some sparse involvement in between.
Indeed, the band more than filled the gaps with some fantastic playing. For last minute stand-ins they were in fact rather standout. Particular note has to go to band leader Cleave Guyton who swapped between alto sax, flute and piccolo throughout the evening with equal virtuosity. The pieces moved gently and seamlessly one to the other, which allowed for a rich sonorific tapestry to be built up. The continuously mellow tones gave plenty of room for soloing but never really accelerated to the kind of up-tempo, rhythmic, celebratory tones one would perhaps expect of South African jazz. However, it did create a very atmospheric soundscape to get lost in.
Even though the lack of interruption was what allowed for this to happen, it was still a shame there was no real interaction with the audience. At no point were either band members or tracks introduced. Considering the required reprogramming of the evening, it would have been nice to hear from Ibrahim a little on which pieces hailed from the Jazz Epistles and which were Ekaya numbers (as it was advertised there’d be a little of both) for those of us not fully in the know.
Overall, it was still a very enjoyable concert, with Ibrahim’s brilliance evident in the little glimpses we were granted. However, it would have been nice to hear a bit more from the main man himself rather than feel as though he was a guest at an Ekaya show.
Abdullah Ibrahim – Piano
Lance Bryant – Tenor sax
Andrae Murchison – Trombone / trumpet
Marshall McDonald – Baritone sax
Will Terrill – Drums
Noah Jackson – Bass / cello
Cleave E. Guyton – Alto sax / flute / clarinet
This concert was part of the EFG Excellence series