(One person says) "You see that man over there? He's very talented. He speaks 40 languages!'? (The other replies) "Oh yeah, Well what does he say?'? ~Abdullah Ibrahim (after being asked by an interviewer how many languages he speaks)
A man of few words yet full of musical expression, South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim recently paid a rare visit to Seattle, "speaking'? to a standing room only audience at On The Boards. Scheduled to give a question and answer discussion about his music before the show, Ibrahim received reportedly tragic family-related news from abroad just before the start of the performance, and decided to come right out playing after some delay. Spiritual and centered, the pianist came on stage with his trio to a loud ovation, and started playing a rich, yet somewhat melancholy solo piano piece. Bassist Beldon Bullock and drummer George Gray soon joined in, lending solid support to Ibrahim's focused statement. This set the tone for the rest of the performance. Rather than just ending a tune, the bass and drums would often drop out as the pianist would play a masterful interlude, sometimes an entire composition, which would segue beautifully into the next orchestrated trio piece. Ibrahim classics such as "Blues for a Hip King,'? "For Coltrane,'? and "The Wedding,'? weaved in an out of each other, taking the enraptured audience on a long musical journey.
Without using words, Ibrahim's compositions succinctly convey deep meaning. For example, Ibrahim once explained his tune "The Mountain'? depicts "The illusive haven of inner security that stabilizes our efforts to eradicate evil and confirm justice.'? The "inner security'? Ibrahim makes reference to epitomizes his presence, which lends to the serene quality of his music. Whatever unfortunate news Ibrahim had received before the show was not affecting the quality of his performance that night. The spiritual nature of his music was represented well for the most part by his band mates, though I felt it made drummer George Gray's stick-twirling and showboating seem much like a kid that can't sit still at church. God bless him (as I chuckle)!
Abdullah Ibrahim was not always so simple and understated. Playing and recording with Elvin Jones, Don Cherry and other New York avant-garde musicians in the late 60's, Ibrahim relayed to a Boston Globe reporter about that time: "What happened was that we just got to a state of such technical proficiency that we could execute anything. Practically, though, it got to the point that we couldn't eat,'? he says doubling up in laughter. "Really nobody wanted to listen. From a technical perspective it was quite complex and then I realized you can use very eloquent language to say something, but if people don't understand what the hell you are talking about...'? The sentence goes unfinished in another fit of laughter. "Using basic language you can get the same kind of message... but as for me it was not just a conscious decision to move away from it, it was natural.'?
Those lucky enough to get a ticket to the show at On The Boards in November were able to hear Abdullah Ibrahim's message first hand. Thanks to the Earshot organization for allowing this unique voice to be heard at yet another excellent Earshot Jazz Festival. For those that missed out, let's hope Mr. Ibrahim comes back soon!