GORDON BENNETT, this is one torturous journey. Granted, the amount of work I’ve had to do beforehand (itself delayed by the amount of work I had to do prior to that) hasn’t helped- but even so, I can’t recall the last time I’ve pegged it across the Midlands in such intense, nail-biting fury. 20 minute walk, 10 minute bus, 20 minute train, 20 minute wait, 30 minute train, 15 minute taxi: still, the fact that I’m in such a hurry to reach Butterworth Hall tonight to see South Africa’s greatest living jazz innovator, muttering curses and oaths at all in my path, shows that I must really like him…
After arriving 20 minutes into the first half and receiving the usual guff about ‘admission on applause’, I explain to the steward that as this is free jazz we’re watching here, going down that particular path could well result in my still being sat in the corridor long after the last bus has left: realising the validity of my statement, he very helpfully sneaks me into the upper reaches of the magnificent hall’s rear entrance, and finally, I’m in. As are, presumably, all other local devotees of the great man, hanging upon every touch and brush of his grand piano keyboard. Yes, that’s the part I wasn’t expecting: this is a one-hundred percent solo performance. No accompanying musicians, no singers, no orchestra, no quartet, quintet or Ekaya big band: you’ve heard of the full megillah, now sit back and experience the full Abdullah. Unfettered, unadulterated and undiluted.
And why not? If his heroes and contemporaries, such as Tatum, Monk, Cecil Taylor, John Lewis and Keith Jarrett, could do it (and they all did) then so can he. In fact if anything, Ibrahim’s muse is so rich in depth and timbre, he’s probably more able – even at an advanced 84 years of age – than most of his living peers to hold an audience’s rapt attention over the course of two sets at respectively 45 and 60 minutes in length. As a result, the atmosphere within the hall is such that one could, if necessary, hear the proverbial pin drop: what one does admittedly hear from time to time is the occasional boing of footsteps on its sprung wooden floor, although if anything, that only adds to the spontaneity of the event, just as the fact of the venue being designed to hold far more attendees at full capacity (1360, as opposed to the 360 present) accidentally contributes to the unusual acoustics. Not that I’m complaining- as I have an entire row of seats to myself, with the best view in the house, it only makes it feel more like he’s playing exclusively for me.
Because of the very nature of his continuous improvisation, it’s impossible to name or isolate titles per se: that said, I’m convinced that at one stage, I spot the legendary bassline to Bra Joe From Kilimanjaro loping into view, as well as several repeated and reprised themes closely recalling albums as diverse as Tintinyana, Confluence, Echoes From Africa, Desert Flowers and his seminal ECM release African Piano. I’m pretty sure they’re all in there somewhere, along with ghosts of departed collaborators Kippie, Mongi and Dudu and shades of his legendary collaboration with Buddy Tate: the underlying genius of Ibrahim, however, is that he never really lets on (especially in a context such as this) quite what he’s doing, instead leaving the listener to watch and wonder in amazement. And, moreover, it works.
It also adds further to the hypnotic effect, his stride-inflected notes rippling like concentric raincircles: as we ruminate and cogitate, further elements of gospel, township jive and neo-classicalism emerge, the common link between all of them the pianist’s calmly measured, near-instinctive approach to construction. Sure, this may still technically be “free improvisation”, and as such, it never really (a funky section ten or so minutes into the second set aside) “swings” in the way his distinctly Ellingtonian early work did, even despite the inclusion of a balladic Come Sunday as an encore- but in place of both his once-propulsive boppishness and more wilfully discordant has emerged a more thoughtful, reflective Ibrahim: one who though outwardly sombre, is evidently still joyful at the oft-perplexing, challenging tapestry of life. And who basically wishes nothing more, even as he ponders and wonders upon these concepts, than to share that joy with us.
Besides which, you wouldn’t really expect a player of his mature years to still be hammering and bashing away after all this time: fair enough, such techniques may befit Marilyn Crispell, Irene Schweizer, Yosuke Yamashita or Alex Von Schlippenbach, but by the same token, it could be argued that all of those have expanded and refined their relentless technique at the expense of melody, harmony and most essentially human soul. Ibrahim still drips with soul, just as he did when he was plain old Dollar Brand: not in a cheesy LesMcCann/Bob James/Jeff Lorber way either, but in the sense that every single note, each thought, comes not just from his fingertips but from within. And, in turn, is projected outwards still fully intact.
Always full of surprises, his parting shot, rather than another piano piece, transpires to be a two-minute unaccompanied (and unamplified) Negro spiritual sung in both Zulu and English: yet though its final line, reflecting the ever-present yearning of theological man, may be “I want to cross the river Jordan”, it occurs to me, as Ibrahim bows to standing ovations before sauntering contentedly offstage, that he completed that particular journey a long time ago, his due reward being the esteem in which audiences hold him the world over. Then again, there are those who would say the quest of the true jazzman never really ends- and talking of which, I’ve just realised that though it may be only 10 30, I still probably won’t get home tonight til long after 1 am. Why do I do this to myself?
Like I said earlier, I guess I must like the bloke…