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Abdullah Ibrahim at Zankel Hall

Dan Bilawsky By

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Abdullah Ibrahim
Zankel Hall
Ubuntu: Music And Arts Of South Africa
New York, NY
October 17, 2014

Ubuntu. It's one little six-letter word that carries a world of meaning within its frame. The term itself, roughly translated to mean "I am because you are," took root as a philosophy for black youth liberation in the '40s and '50s, but over time, ubuntu has taken on a life beyond a specific movement. It's a word that, while broad in scope, has clear implications tied to its use in South African history and culture: it's all about community, tolerance, and humanity. It's this one little word that served as the perfect umbrella term for the music and arts festival that took shape in New York City in the fall of 2014—two decades after the fall of apartheid.

Carnegie Hall, partnering with other venues throughout the city, put together a month's worth of concerts and programs highlighting the many and varied strains of South African music and art. Those looking to catch the next wave of South African jazz talent could hear Kesivan And The Lights at Zankel Hall or catch vocalist Nicky Schrire at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola; those looking to experience interdisciplinary works could witness a music and film crossover—"Paper Music: A Cine Concert by Philip Miller and William Kentridge"—or an original musical theater production—"A Distant Drum"; and audiences seeking a new twist on the music of a departed icon could check out Angelique Kidjo paying tribute to the great Miriam Makeba at Carnegie's Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage. But for those looking to hear and see an icon that's still among us, one of the places to be was Zankel Hall on Friday, October 17, 2014: that's where pianist Abdullah Ibrahim took to the piano bench for two probing sets of music. A packed crowd was treated to Ibrahim's ruminations, vamping thoughts, and introspective offerings for forty-five minutes. Then, after a brief intermission, he came back with another forty-five minutes of music, slightly more challenging than the first set in some ways, but more rewarding with the appearance of familiar favorites.

While Ibrahim's signature blend of Ellingtonian grace, South African spirit, Monk-ish meandering, and soul-searching song craft have remained intact over the years, the way in which he shapes a solo performance has evolved into a ceaseless flow of music, both liquid and solid in nature. He instantly gets to the heart of an emotion, wasting no time and adding no unnecessary notes. Then, in the blink of an eye, with little warning, he's moved on. Ibrahim chews on his thoughts, but those thoughts are fleeting, blowing in the breeze for a bit before they simply vanish. Senzo (Sunnyside, 2009), a gorgeous solo piano album that focuses on one-to-three minute beauties, epitomizes this style of performance on record, but those in attendance at this Zankel Hall concert were able to experience such a scenario as it unfolded on the stage in front of them.

As on Senzo, Ibrahim opened up with "Ocean & The River," but then he created a different road map to suit this occasion. Across both sets, Ibrahim delivered music built around curiosity, hope, joy, and sorrow. Consonant streams were peppered with dissonance, but musical clarity was never in question. Highlights of the night included an uplifting "Banyana, Children Of Africa," several plainly beautiful, chorale-like explorations, and a pair of late-arriving Ibrahim classics—"The Wedding" and "The Mountain"—that transfixed the audience. And after a standing ovation—the third one of the night if you count those that surrounded his arrival and the conclusion of his first set—Ibrahim graciously sat down for a nightcap of an encore. The entire evening served as a reminder of Ibrahim's position in the world of music, jazz, and culture. He remains a brilliantly creative spirit like no other.
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