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REVIEW: Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya at the 2019 Cheltenham Jazz Festival

Abdullah Ibrahim at Cheltenham
Photo: © John Watson/
Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya
(Henry Westons Big Top, 4 May 2019, Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Review by Luke Davidson)

Put it down to inexperience. I, who am certainly not worthy to pass judgment on any of the musicians of Ekaya, let alone the band’s leader, Abdullah Ibrahim, one of the greats, was left underwhelmed by his set at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival.

Was it the wrong venue? The Festival’s Big Top was barely half full for this master, who was given a Cotswold welcome by having a dog bark unceremoniously throughout the gig. A smaller venue might have preserved the intimacy of Ibrahim’s music and prevented it from disappearing into the dark. Yes, the fault must lie with me. After all, must a gig entertain? Must jazz smile? Surely, not. We may be very well prepared to go to a concert despite it being discouragingly called Requiem, and at least some of us might very well indulge in an evening of Shostakovitch’s quartets, and think ourselves blessed. Serious music is serious because life is serious. But, for all that, Ibrahim’s set was fantastically subdued; from Ibrahim’s meditative opening to the final encore, it felt painfully serious. The joyous Ibrahim of Mandela and Black and Brown Cherries was nowhere to be heard. With the exception of a rendition of Thelonius Monk’s Rhythm-a-Ning, it was a plaintive programme, and even Monk’s brash exuberance drooped with the afternoon’s earnestness. The jubilance of Ibrahim was missed, at least by me.

Ibrahim’s gift for lyrical accompaniment, however, was certainly on display, with customary flourishes of absolute loveliness in his ruminative, searching piano work, but so was his reputation for self-effacement. Ibrahim was inclined to sit out from much of his band’s performance. Well, why put in a note, if it isn’t really needed? But the truth is that his interventions give his band much-needed impetus and the music missed him. The combined forces of his four front-line horn section never caught fire, if they were even supposed to. Obediently disappearing off the stage to let a fellow horn perform their solo, it seemed that the worse crime they could commit was to appear to upstage anyone else.

Oh, well. On this occasion, I and Abdullah Ibrahim’s performance failed to properly connect and for that there is only one remedy: go back and listen to his lovely records again. As I said, let’s put it down to inexperience. It’s not just the performers who make up a performance; audience members have to be prepared to listen for what they aren’t expecting to hear.

LINK: Review of Abdullah Ibrahim at the 2017 EFG London Jazz Festival

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