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?
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