“Jazz is the highest art form and the Symphony Orchestra is stuck in the industrial era, with each musician only knowing how to play his part and not the whole piece” Abdullah Ibrahim said at the weekend. He recounted an incident when he gave a score to a conductor for a performance he was to do with an orchestra. “They did not bother to practice, and I knew exactly what was going to go down” Ibrahim said with a smile. Ibrahim says the day before the performance the conductor asked him if he did not have a CD of the music. The hapless conductor was out of luck and Ibrahim says he had to stop the performance and ask the musicians to try again. It was perhaps telling that Ibrahim warned against the dangers of mistaking information for knowledge.
Ibrahim singles out the ability to improvise as what truly sets jazz musicians apart from their counterparts who play classical music. In his gentle but wise voice he wonders why classical musicians are revered so much if they can only play what is written for them and are unable to improvise. Even as he ponders some of the most enduring contradictions in music, it is clear that Ibrahim remains fascinated by mastery of the simple. Where some musicians bet their careers on virtuosity and playing at impossibly high speeds Ibrahim’s style is often spare. Like Duke Ellington before him, his greatest instrument is the band that he plays with.
His own music is a study in paring down so that each note is heard with a purity that is startling. A key to his practice as a musician, as a composer and a pianist may lie in his life long study of martial arts. Ibrahim reveals that he can spend several years to master one simple movement. Similarly in his playing, he plays the same song over and over again till he discovers to borrow from him, he discovers the 99% that lies hidden beyond the obvious.”
Ibrahim told a story of a young man who found Art Tatum playing and he walked over to him and said he knew all of Tatum’s music and he could play it perfectly. To demonstrate his point, the young man went over to a piano and began playing like the great pianist. But Tatum was oblivious of the young man and he focused on his drink till a friend sitting next to him, said, “Listen, this young man is playing your music”, whereupon Tatum responded, “He knows what I play, not why I play it”.
In his two shows at the Linder Auditorium and at the ZK Matthews Hall in Pretoria, Ibrahim played some of the most wondrous, most irresistibly memorable jazz, and his band Ekaya was able to go to places where only the bravest and most skilled improvisers dare go. On songs like Mindif and Calypso Minor, the band played with a joy that sent palpable electricity across the hallowed halls. Both the Linder and the ZK Matthews halls have some of the best acoustics in the country and this allowed Ibrahim and the band to play with as little amplification as possible. The sound was rich, pure, and intimate, full of a raw intelligence that comes from hearing men like Ibrahim whisper their secrets through their music.
The great composer, pianist and bandleader, Abdullah Ibrahim
Whether he was eliciting the bluest notes from the minor keys of his Steinway, or coaxing the brightest, warmest notes that convey his love for this art form, it is clear that Ibrahim’s music is made from a place that is deep and beautiful and ultimately unknowable. As he came to play for Joburg and Pretoria, we were lucky to hear Ibrahim take an unprecedented number of solos in a performance with a band. Such is his generosity that when he is on stage, Ibrahim prefers to let the spotlight shine on the musicians that accompany him. In his last performance at The Linder, he gave up his seat at the piano to Andile Yenana.
It is worth noting that in both his performances at the Linder and at the ZK Mathews Hall, Abdullah Ibrahim did not once utter a word. Not a single word. He came onto the stage and only spoke through the music. He only gestured acknowledgement of applause and he and his band members were one in speaking to us through the language of their music. His refusal to speak was perhaps a necessary reminder that at its zenith, it is perhaps unnecessary to paraphrase music. If we remain truly curious, and we listen with clarity and sincerity, perhaps we earn the right to hear the notes that would otherwise remain hidden from those that only hear the obvious.
The music that Abdullah Ibrahim has composed in a career that’s well over 60 years is some of the most beautiful, some of the most daring, but also some of the most radically African. Once he gave us Mannenberg, Abdullah Ibrahim reminded us that Africa’s music has a beauty that eclipses much of what we’ve previously elevated to the apex of culture. But it is when he plays an extended set of just under three hours that you begin to grasp the incredible magic of this pianist and composer who has always painted in the most unusual colors with the sound of his piano.
Jazz music is the African diaspora’s greatest gift to the world, and we should listen to it knowing that we are in an encounter with the highest of the art forms. Abdullah Ibrahim belongs in a line of our greatest griots that includes Duke Ellington, Madala Kunene, Kippie Moeketsi, Johnny Dyani, Marks Mankwane, Miriam Makeba, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Princess Magogo, Philip Tabane, Ali Farka Toure and Bheki Mseleku. We should count ourselves lucky that Abdullah Ibrahim is playing for us when his quest for perfection has been realized.
A portrait of Abdullah Ibrahim next to his piano
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