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Abdullah Ibrahim Trio at the Barbican

Abdullah Ibrahim Trio
(Barbican, EFG London Jazz Festival Summer Series. 15 July 2023. Review by John Stevenson)

Abdullah Ibrahim Trio performing at the Barbican
L-R: Abdullah Ibrahim, Noah Jackson, Cleave Guyton. Photo credit: John Stevenson

Whenever celebrated South African jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim performs in London, he is received rapturously and accorded a reverence reserved for few jazz musicians.

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Leading the Abdullah Ibrahim Trio at the Barbican on 15 July (as part of the ongoing 2023 EFG London Jazz Festival Summer Series), the appreciative audience hung on the 88-year-old’s every note.

That said, however, for a major portion of the 90-minute performance, the spotlight and solo duties fell to Cleave Guyton (on flutes and clarinet) and Noah Jackson (on double bass and cello), while Mr Ibrahim looked on attentively from the piano bench.

Guyton and Jackson opened the set with Duke Ellington’s ‘In a Sentimental Mood’, showing off their fine chops and impeccable tone on their instruments. This was followed by a superlative solo rendition of John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’ by Noah Jackson on bass.

The importance of the Duke and Coltrane to Ibrahim’s artistry is now the stuff of jazz legend.

Owing to the evils of apartheid-era South Africa, including the notorious Sharpeville massacre of 1960 and the incarceration of Nelson Mandela, Dollar Brand (as Ibrahim was known before his conversion to Islam in the 1970s) and his partner Sathima Bea Benjamin (who passed away in 2013) found refuge in Switzerland, taking up a three-year contract at Zurich’s Club Africana.

It was there that they met several visiting American jazz musicians, including Max Roach, John Coltrane, Abbey Lincoln and the Duke.

As the legend goes, it was Bea Benjamin who persuaded Ellington to listen to the Dollar Brand Trio at the Africana, which led to the now famous ‘Duke Ellington presents the Dollar Brand Trio’ and Sathima’s ‘A Morning in Paris’ recordings.

Abdullah Ibrahim would later move to New York City in 1965 and befriend the likes of Coltrane, Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman among other notable jazz exponents of the day.

‘Water from an Ancient Well’, taken from Ibrahim’s 1985 album of the same name (with his group Ekaya), was very well received by the audience; a moving African blues piece featuring Jackson’s empathetic bass playing and Guyton’s birdlike and wonderfully buoyant flute – not unlike Panamanian Carlos Ward’s on the original recording.

Perhaps the most affecting piece of the trio’s programme was their performance of ‘The Wedding’ (also drawn from the ‘Water from an Ancient Well’ album), which accentuated Jackson’s sonorous technique on the cello as he caressed the melody out of the instrument.

Ibrahim’s highly evocative and magisterial touch on the piano was still very much in evidence at this special Barbican concert, especially on numbers such as ‘Blue Bolero’, ‘Mindiff’ and ‘Nisa’, compositions which struck a fine balance between the mournful and the elevating.

He may be frail and in need of assistance on and off the stage, but Abdullah Ibrahim is still a force to be reckoned with as an elder statesman of the jazz piano.

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