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S & H Jazz Review

The Abdullah Ibrahim Trio; Abdullah Ibrahim (Piano), George Gray (Drums), Belden Bullock (Double Bass); Royal Festival Hall; 25th October 2003 (EP)


Formally known as Dollar Brand, Abdullah Ibrahim is a pianist, composer arranger, bandleader and teacher. Born in 1934 in Cape Town, he grew up in the "notorious" District 6. In 1959 he joined up with other SA jazz giants Kippie Moletsi and Hugh Masekela to form The Jazz Epistles but in 1962 left South Africa and was only to return after 30 years in exile. This was his only concert in the UK this year.

His music could be said to be influenced by Liszt, late Beethoven, Mahler and even Messiaen. But there are also influences of Arabic and Moorish music, township jazz, shebeen music, fragments of English chorals, romantic music, and hints of Ellington and Monk.

Abdullah Ibrahimís music is multilayered, though deceptively flat to the unaccustomed ear. He is not afraid of repetition, though not in the strict sense of the word, as every piece is approached from a different angle. He continually deconstructs what he has previously done, the effect being that he never plays the same music twice. He strives to go beyond the traditional rules of music; for instance he is fond of alienating the customary jazz chord by changing its upper structure, the "French technique", with dazzling results.

His choice of music was more introspective, meditative, reflective - even bordering on melancholic romanticism - than we usually expect from him. The first half hour was unsettling since it required his audience to adjust to the subtle energies he was projecting through his responsive piano. Often you needed to rid yourself of preconceived notions about his music and approach it as if youíve never heard it before. Only then can you feel its desired impact.

He embraces constant change, revelling in the flux of things seen and unseen. This can be disappointing to those who expect "more of the past" from him. However, like Miles Davis, he is not that kind of musician. He canít do it; he wonít do it. The past only matters as material to be transformed, notes become putty in his hands, and the next note his only guide.

During the concert, each distinct work was woven together by a repetitive romantic ditty signifying the start of a new piece. Some may find it reassuring; I thought it superfluous. I would much have preferred a full version of this piece standing alongside his other works in its own right.

By far the best music was his solo piano performances. These compositions stand by themselves, without the need for any accompaniment. As such, it is arguable that the double bass and drums often subtracted from the music rather than adding depth or colour to it. At times it seemed almost as if he had forgotten we were there, as if he was in a trance. The only thing he looked at was his piano, the distance behind it, and from time to time glanced at his band members. Sometimes he would signal to them by hand or give a slight nod indicating when they were to join him. The drummer, George Gray was absolutely superb, playing with perfect modulation. The double bass player Belden Bullock came across as rather uncertain of himself and aurally was difficult to hear.

Two encores followed the scheduled music, "The Wedding" as Iíve never heard it before, followed by a variation of "Mindif", ending on the leitmotif ditty he had used all evening.

All in all it made for a relaxing and reflective evening. One couldnít help but be intoxicated by his mesmeric and captivating sound sculptures. Abdullah is a veteran jazz musician of truly historic, though fortunately not histrionic, proportions. He is not as complacent as many older, well-established artists inevitably become; he is still exploring sounds and its forms. As an experimenter, he is constantly changing, but never forgetting where he started from.

Evert Potgieter

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