Abdullah Ibrahim: Perpetual Change

Ian Patterson By

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The principal is to establish a state of fearlessness, because when you play a solo you're going into uncharted waters; waters where you've never been before, and it's terrifying.
For legendary pianist/composer Abdullah Ibrahim, music is always in a state of evolution. This philosophy is common to nearly all great composers, from [pianist] Duke Ellington to [trumpeter] Miles Davis and from [saxophonist] John Coltrane and [pianist] Ahmad Jamal to [guitarist] Bill Frisell. A piece of music is born, it grows and gradually matures but it never withers.

And, like the Lesotho mountains, which, in part, inspired Ibrahim to revisit compositions—some of which he penned a quarter of a century ago—there is a timeless quality to Abdullah Ibrahim and Ekaya's Sotho Blue (Intuition, 2010). A subdued, blue tonality colors the music but the playing of this fine septet is emotionally charged, and at times, celebratory. Sotho Blue seems to state the quiet optimism that Ibrahim feels towards his native South Africa post-Apartheid.

The South Africa that Ibrahim left almost 50 years ago—living in exile in Europe and America before returning in the '90s—has changed significantly but Ibrahim recognizes that society still faces enormous challenges. Yet he remains optimistic, for at the end of the day, just like his music, everything must change. In the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles it is worth remembering that even the mountains will crumble to the sea one day.

Only the music is eternal.

All About Jazz What prompted you to revisit previously recorded material on Sotho Blue?

Abdullah Ibrahim [laughs] All compositions are functionally tools for us to reexamine and to evolve. Also, this is a new Ekaya with younger musicians and we are also reaching younger audiences so the idea is to revisit at least some of those songs.

AAJ: So you would agree with the Duke Ellington approach to a composition in that it is never something completed but rather it's something always evolving?

AI: It's never complete; every night we discover alternative approaches that work.

AAJ: Is it a coincidence that the four woodwind players on Sotho Blue, [baritone saxophonist] Jason W. Marshall, [alto saxophonist/flautist] Cleave Guyton, [trombonist] Andrae Murchison and [tenor saxophonist] Keith Loftis all have extensive experience playing in large ensembles? Were you looking for that big band sound and expertise on this record?

AI: Exactly; also, I was looking for musicians who understand and acknowledge the tradition. All these musicians are well equipped. They all have master's degrees but the acknowledgment of the tradition is very, very important.

AAJ: How did you come across these players?

AI: We have a little trick; they once asked Duke [Ellington] if you remember, "How do you manage to keep all these great musicians?" and he said: "I found a gimmick; I give them money."

AAJ: [laughs] That is a great trick, but you didn't give any money to a trumpet player; why was that?

AI: I keep the trumpet for our big band project.

AAJ: Let's talk about the compositions on Sotho Blue; the opening track, "Calypso Minor" has one of the greatest bass line motifs ever recorded; did you come up with that yourself?

AI: [laughs] Yeah, I came up with the basic idea. I know that some of the rappers are using it also.

AAJ: Several of the tracks, "Abide," "The Wedding" and "Capetown Flower (Emerald Bay}" have a hymnal/gospel flavor which is an important element of your music; does the church exert such a strong influence in contemporary South African jazz in your opinion?

AI: Quoting Ellington again: "Duke, what is your opinion on jazz? And Duke said: "Jazz? Now let me see, we haven't used that word since 1947." [laughs] For us, our agenda and our dispensation is with music. Every day we work with traditional music, music for social occasions, and so jazz is just one aspect, but it is possible to incorporate all of these elements. Of course the church is devotional music; let me put it that way. It's still key in all social activities in South Africa.

AAJ:The music on Sotho Blue is for the most part of a subdued tempo—though there's a quietly smoldering passion at work—and the solos mostly clock in at around 30 seconds; are you aiming for a more distilled, meditative sound in your music these days?

AI: Well, that was the concept for Sotho Blue. The title suggests the rolling mountains of Lesotho, and that sort of energy. The idea is to create an overall concept for the whole album. We have in our program pieces which are more robust [laughs]. I wouldn't say a high energy level but just more robust and we plan to use that approach in upcoming albums.

AAJ: Will you be using the same musicians on the next project?

AI: Probably, yes. We're thinking now whether it will be the septet or if it will be the big band or even a Philharmonic work; we have a Philharmonic work which was created by the late Steve Gray, which will be presented in the fall of this year with the Potsdam Philharmonic. So, there are several possibilities. We also have a project with traditional groups in South Africa.

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?

AI: Yeah, definitely. I feel we have achieved a... [long pause] collective liberation. Now is the time for individual liberation. About two years ago my martial arts teacher in Japan gave me a degree, a very high degree—I've been studying with him for about 50 years—and I asked him: "But teacher, why do you give me this award? I don't know anything." And he said: "That's why I give it to you because I also don't know anything." So I've arrived at this stage at 75 years of age where I'm only beginning to understand what is going on.

AAJ: It's remarkable that you've studied martial arts with the same teacher for almost five decades; do you see any parallels between the discipline required for required for composing and performing music?

AI: Definitely, and especially in this genre which we do —improvised music. The principal is to establish a state of fearlessness, because when you play a solo you're going into uncharted waters; waters where you've never been before, and it's terrifying [laughs]. But you prepare yourself from every angle, starting with song, harmony rhythm, for months, maybe years. If you have this foundation you have no fear; this is the same with martial arts. There are no secrets, just basics, and you do the basics over and over and over and over again, in martial arts and in music and I guess in any kind of creative activity one does. It's through constant repetition of the basics that the secrets are revealed, and also the fearlessness.

AAJ: That makes perfect sense. I'd like to ask you about the Capetown Jazz orchestra which you initiated in '06; could you tell us about the story behind this orchestra and the intention.

AI: One of the first groups I played in when I was just out of high school was a big band. In those years there were several big bands and also smaller dance bands. In South Africa the oral tradition is translated in to the instrument so at times it was quite difficult to tell if it was a Count Basie riff or a South African chant. There has always been this idea and that is actually our legacy where you hone your skills, like the jazz combo.

During the years of struggle we were always thinking how we could do it, but now with the new dispensation we were given the task to democratize the old institutions like the Philharmonic orchestra and then the government department for Arts and Culture gave us funds to create an orchestra, in our genre. That is what we've done. We've been working with young musicians. What we're doing now, next month, is that we're going to South Africa with Ekaya to present Sotho Blue in five cities and we'll present some of the young, upcoming musicians who will open the show; there are some incredible young musicians. We're also working with traditional groups and this is where we're heading. The musical experience is very broad; you have the choral tradition, the rural tradition, jazz, and we're trying to address all of this. Of course it's quite difficult because for most of the players in the provinces and the cities there's no infrastructure. I remember last year we did a project in the provinces and we reached 40,000 youngsters, but it's virtually impossible to keep it up because there are few teachers and instruments and so on, and these are the issues we are addressing.

AAJ:: You said before that there are a lot of incredible young musicians but do they get much support in terms of grants and are there venues for them to play?

AI: The Department of Arts and Culture is giving quite a lot of support but the problem is that there is not actually a circuit. In most of the cities there is not even one jazz club, so what we're doing now in Johannesburg is that we are busy creating a jazz club. It's a unique approach because we've managed to bring on board one of our top restaurants. So we have an excellent restaurant with excellent music. We're in the process of setting up and we think it will be another few months when we open. Then there is a possibility for musicians to play, both local and international musicians.

AAJ: That sounds like a wonderful project. Another project which sounds interesting is the M7 academy for musicians; what can you tell us about that?

AI: There is an urgency that there needs to be an all-embracing, holistic approach to our lives. We try to put it all under one roof; music, movement, martial arts, meditation, medicine. We have great help from government. We are looking at how we can service the communities. Many people are very poor and destitute and it's almost impossible to get to a hospital. The whole idea of M7 is how, through music, we can provide a health service base. We've started this project already; we've started with bush people in the heart of the Kalahari [desert.] We've been working with them for several years. It's very important that we do that because they are one of the last remaining entities of traditional wisdom and knowledge. We're trying to preserve their language by teaching it to the young people who teach it to us. There is so much we can learn from them, especially the code of conduct.

AAJ: Is there anything you would like to say?

AI: I'd just like to commend this new wave of young musicians, especially in our genre, who are emerging in the tradition and who are so totally dedicated; it's fantastic to experience them.

Selected Discography

Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya, Sotho Blue (Intuition 2010)

Abdullah Ibrahim, Senso (Sunnyside Records, 2008) Abdullah Ibrahim, A Celebration (Enja/Justin Time, 2005)
Abdullah Ibrahim Trio, Cape Town Revisited (Enja Records, 2004)
Abdullah Ibrahim, African Magic (Enja Records, 2003)
Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand), Anatomy of a South African Village/Ekapa Lodumo (Black Lion, 2002)
Abdullah Ibrahim & NDR Big Band, Ekapa Lodumo (Enja records, 2000) Abdullah Ibrahim, Best of Abdullah Ibrahim (EMI Music, 1999)
Abdullah Ibrahim, Cape Town Fowers (Tip Toe, 1997)
Abdullah Ibrahim, Yarona (Tip Toe, 1995)
Abdullah Ibrahim, Mantra Mode (Enja Records, 1993)
Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya, African River (Enja Records, 1989)
Abdullah Ibrahim, Water from an Ancient Well (Tip Toe, 1985)
Abdullah Ibrahim/Max Roach, Streams of Conciousness (Piadrum, 1977)
Abdullah Ibrahim, Banyana—The Children of Africa (Enja Records, 1976)
Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand), African Space Program (Enja Records, 1973)

Photo Credits

Page 1; Manfred Rinderspacher
Pages 2, 3: Courtesy of Abdullah Ibrahim

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