Abdullah Ibrahim: Perpetual Change
AAJ: That all sounds very exciting. Are you more attracted to large scale, orchestral or big band projects these days?
AI: Well, I always have been; as a composer you hear things orchestrally. The piano is your command post and then the next module is the trio, then the sextet, the big-band, and then a Philharmonic orchestra. Most of my compositions have lyrics to them which we've never really used much.
AAJ: Why do you compose lyrics for your compositions and then not perform them usually?
AI: That's a project on its own. We will probably use them in subsequent projects.
AAJ: The title track in particular, in the arrangement and the texture of the music evokes Gil Evans; was he an influence on you?
AI: We used to hang [laughs]. I was a great admirer of his work all those years when we were playing In New York at Sweet Basil with Ekaya. We weren't consciously influenced by each other but we hear the same colors, no matter where we are.
AAJ: One influence which is well documented is Duke Ellington, and your piano playing on Sotho Blue has a similar spare but intensely emotional quality that characterized Ellington's playing; did he influence you more as a pianist than as a composer?
AI: Both I would say, though for me mostly as a composer. It's a question of constantly evolving; at this stage in my life I'm beginning to understand how to play one note. It takes a minute.
AAJ: That's a great answer. You subbed Duke Ellington for six concerts in '66; do you know if you were the only musician who ever subbed for Duke Ellington?
AI: Well, Billy Strayhorn, but there was another pianist whose name I can't remember. But that was very rare and scary [laughs]. Very scary. Those concerts were on the West coast, I think Ellington was on the East Coast, I think doing the score for Anatomy of a Murder (Columbia, 1959), so he asked me to fill the chair.
AAJ: Could you elaborate a little on what it was like sitting in front of that orchestra?
AI: [laughs] Sitting in it, it was like a starship which takes off. Hearing Ellington on record was one thing, but hearing him live was something else. To be inside that orchestra was unbelievable; the nuances in sound which you can't hear. By the time I hit a note it was like we were in another dimension. They were very patient with me.
AAJ: It must have been some experience looking back on it, no?
AI: It was really something; the intricacies of Ellington's arrangements, the level of finesse was so intense. The passion for detail was incredible. Of course what you hear on record is not what you hear live in concert [laughs].
AAJ: The one non-original on Sotho Blue is (pianist) Bud Powell's "Glass Enclosure," which is one of his most atypical compositions; why were you attracted to this particular composition of Powell?
AI: Well, this project we're working on is to record and present some of the quite exquisite compositions written by the masters which are never heard. I remember when I first came to New York being with [saxophonist] Wayne Shorter, hanging with him. We usually exchanged ideas. He used to show me these charts he had written for symphony orchestra which have never been played. It's like [bassist, Charles Mingus' "Epitaph" which was discovered posthumously. There are all these great composers with unpublished, unperformed work. Then there are classical composers from West Africa, functioning in London with chamber orchestras, so there's a wide range of these compositions. Ellington, for example, has music which has never been recorded, never been presented. Every album that we do we try to have embedded an embryo of what will happen in the next CD, so the idea of "Glass Enclosure" is the idea that the next CD will be a dedication to composers.
AAJ: Saxophonist Jackie McLean once said in an interview that in his opinion Bud Powell was the only musician he had ever seen on the bandstand with (saxophonist) Charlie Parker who could match Parker and at times even outplay him; did you ever see Powell perform?
AI: Yeah, we met him in Paris. He was living in Paris when we arrived from South Africa. We also saw him play at Montmartre where we were based for several years. [laughs] Bud would be just cruising along [laughs] and the something would trigger this unbelievable virtuosity, and he was, as they say, right in the pocket.
AAJ: Returning to Sotho Blue the music could perhaps be described as celebratory: is this a reflection of how you feel about South Africa post-Apartheid?