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.
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