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Abdullah Ibrahim at The National Concert Hall, Dublin

Ian Patterson By

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Abdullah Ibrahim
National Concert Hall
Dublin, Ireland
March 4, 2016

South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim is showing few signs of a diminished appetite for the road, despite turning eighty one this past November. A short UK tour precedes a string of US dates and there are already gigs in the diary for 2017. This one-off Irish show at the National Concert Hall presented Ibrahim solo, a context he has repeatedly explored during his six-decade career, notably on albums such as Reflections (Black Lion, 1965) African Piano (JAPO Records, 1973), Autobiography (Plainisphare Records, 1978), African Dawn (Enja, 1982), Senso Sunnyside Records, 2009) and the aptly titled The Song Is My Story (Sunnyside Records, 2015).

Indeed, the song was the entire story, as Ibrahim arrived and departed the stage without a word, instead letting his music do the talking during an eighty-minute set divided into two extended medleys, the first of which lasted nearly an hour.

The delicate, blue toned balladry of "Green Kalahari" set the lulling, hypnotic tone for much of the music that unfolded across the keys for the first, uninterrupted hour. Ibrahim's slow, left-hand pulse was countered by a gently probing right hand that was consistently melodic, with just occasional hints of the angularity that was a more common feature of his early recordings.

Following his inner muse, a robust harmonic interlude gave way to the meditative strains of "Blue Bolero," the spaces within the gorgeous melody hinting at rhythms left to the listener's imagination, though anything other than brushes might have seemed an intrusion, so light was Ibrahim's delivery. This hymnal anthem provided some of the pianist's most fluid improvisation of the evening, though texture and mood trumped virtuosity.

Elegant throughout and orchestral in his range of colors, it was not hard to imagine what had attracted Duke Ellington to promote Ibrahim—then Dollar Brand—in the early 1960s, nor, as Ibrahim recounted in a 2011 interview with AAJ, why he was invited to sub at the helm of Ellington's orchestra for a handful of concerts in 1966 when the leader was on sabbatical. Gospel-tinged blues melted into the slower impressionism of "Barakat," whose suspended interludes and high-register minimalism provoked a lulling melancholy that concluded the opening fifty-five minute medley.

Ibrahim rose to a prolonged ovation, hands clasped together under his chin, before taking his seat once more for what turned out, in effect, to be the encore. Picking up the thread where he left off, Ibrahim stitched melody seamlessly upon melody, filtering church, Cape Town folk and jazz figures through his unique prism. The second medley, clocking in at around half the time of the first, featured the first extended unison play between left and right hand of the evening. A bluesy stroll flirted once more with gospel, gradually dissipating and then giving way to a stop-start segment of Thelonious Monk-esque logic.

The haunting and uplifting melody of "Joan -Capetown Flower" flared briefly, delivered at ballad tempo. Further rubato impressionism followed, tinged with melancholy gravitas, bringing down the curtain on a memorable and occasionally spellbinding performance. Ibrahim's deceptively simple, quietly beguiling art was greeted with a general standing ovation and the octogenarian shuffled silently off the stage—having in his own way said much—perhaps for the last time in this revered Dublin concert hall.


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