Sunday, May 4, 2008

Dr Abdullah Ibrahim: Perfect Simplicity

9:30pm, Thu 1 May

Dr Abdullah Ibrahim - piano
Belden Bullock - double bass
George Gray - drums
Cleave Guyton - alto saxophone/ flute
Stafford Hunter - trombone/ seashells
Howard Johnson - baritone/ pennywhistle
James Stewart - tenor saxophone

You can click here to read a review of this concert by the great Melbourne writer Miriam Zolin on the official Jazz Australia blog.

Dr Abdullah Ibrahim: Perfect Simplicity

In the span of the entire concert, he played less piano than most jazz pianists would play during a single song. A majestic, relaxed presence on stage, Dr Abdullah Ibrahim steered his ensemble with slow, deliberate hand gestures and with deft, simple touches of the piano keys.

The concept was strong and clear – subtlety and grace reigned supreme in this performance. The volume level rarely reached anything you’d call loud, but the dynamic range somehow still felt full. Long, sweeping pieces based around simple, powerful melodies provided the basis for the EKAYA concept – for seven musicians to play as one, egoless and in servitude. Not servitude to the man, but to the music.

He led from the side, orchestrating the ebb and flow of the music with the care of a diligent craftsman and the patient confidence of a loving teacher. For the most part, the piano was merely a steering tool in Ibrahim’s hands. There was a breathtaking moment in which he instigated a double-time feel with two perfectly syncopated, ostinato chord stabs (on 4 and 4+a, for those musicians who want to imagine the specifics of that magical moment). The entire ensemble responded instantly and unfalteringly to their great leader and the music flowed on effortlessly.

The slight exceptions to this approach were the two trio pieces/ moments. We heard more piano here, but the same grace and subtlety. His solemn respect for each sound the instrument makes gifts him with the patience to let each harmony ring out into the space, filling the Regent Theatre with clear, profound musical statements. Although what we heard was so minimal, there wasn’t a moment in which I doubted his mastery of the instrument: his art is in perfect simplicity.

It was an interesting balance between the times when the music was really engaging and stimulating and when it was more calming, meditative and atmospheric. At times it even felt somewhat static, which inspired an interesting realisation – that I can only really get bored in a performance if I have expectations of the way something should be. That’s a big can of worms, enough for a whole book on the performer-listener relationship, but the gist of it was that once I calmed down a bit and relaxed my grip on the expectation of mind-blowing virtuosity, the beauty of those simple, lucid four-horn arrangements shone with a renewed brightness.

Across the performance, the pieces artfully covered a fulfilling range of feels, from slow, medium and up-tempo swing to light funk, gentle African feels and implied latin pulses. For the most part the music breathed in great big sighs, long gestures made with form taking precedence over the importance of any one solo or flash of brilliance.

Double-bassist Belden Bullock beamed a warm smile the entire evening. His playing and his persona, blended as one for the duration, bore the message of Ibrahim’s concept. Selflessness and prowess were evident in delicate balance in his playing, with a full, earthy tone that always supported the whole sound.

Mid-way through the performance, Ibrahim introduced the band – all of whom were from New York City or Brooklyn. It somewhat dispelled the illusion of African-ness or worldliness I had projected onto the experience, but added a new amazing realisation: these cats can really blow through the roof! Yet here they are treating this musical concept with the utmost of respect and paying homage to the mastery of a great musician. They were at once his disciples and his equals in the music, a tricky role to play for anyone, let alone for a cast of characters each with their own strong personality.

I was fortunate enough to see some of them let off a little steam at the Bennetts Lane jam session (12 – 3am, every night of the festival –check it out!), which put their patience earlier in the evening into stark contrast and deepened my respect for the whole concert.

Not knowing anything of Dr Abdullah Ibrahim prior to this concert (other than a couple of obscure, intricate solo piano recordings heard at a friend’s house), I had arrived naively expecting bémbés and African intensity, but was surprised and blessed with the grace and compassion of simple music played beautifully. EKAYA means ‘home’.