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Abdullah Ibrahim: The Sound of the Universe


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Find that first initial sound within ourselves. As musicians, for me at least, it’s discovering that the sound that resonates within us and resonates with the universe...
—Abdullah Ibrahim
Abdullah Ibrahim's cosmology informs his art. While some might look upon him as an overseer at the crossroads between new and old, the tempered pianist stands as a sage, painting swirling rhythms that resemble the spheres of the universe with his compositions. He continues to combine ancient wisdom with the tones of the future; formation and reformation are one and the same for him. He roots his musical practice within tradition, composing with an ethos based on cycles.

Ibrahim's 2019 release The Balance is a self-guided journey. Within this boundless voyage is the impression that a universal truth explains why people separated by generations and thousands of miles can communicate in the same musical language. Noah Jackson, Alec Dankworth, Will Terrill, Adam Glasser, Cleave Guyton Jr., Lance Bryant, Andrae Murchison, and Marshall McDonald join the pianist in an attempt to undermine typified notions of complexity and simplicity. Ibrahim's compositional style is immediately recognizable and perhaps most especially in his orchestrated silence, he openly and authentically challenges western understandings of time, space, and art.

All About Jazz: When you were assisting in forming The Jazz Epistles in the 1950s, what did you and the group suppose the larger communal response to your music would be?

Abdullah Ibrahim: Well as a young, young pianist I started playing—my grandmother sent me to the local school teacher to learn how to play music... or read music at least. And then I started fiddling around on the piano, discovering that I can create little episodes. Then I realized that they were actually compositions. And since that time, I was seven years old, I've been writing these compositions. When I was in high school, my composition teacher gave me a mantra that has been almost a guideline in my life. He said, "when you write about something, write about the thing that you know best." The things I know best are my family, my friends, events, occasions. In South Africa, I started playing with different dance bands, big bands, vocal groups, but I always wanted to-as a composer at the piano, the next step is having to have somebody play it for you or with you. And I met this incredible musician in Johannesburg named Kippie Moeketsi, an alto player, and we got together and played some duo and we were looking for a bassist and a drummer, and then Hugh Masakela and Mosa Jonas Gwangwa joined us. We wanted to reestablish and reconfirm our heritage and cosmology. So that is what led to the formation of Jazz Epistles and we all came together and contributed our compositions. There was no other platform to express this.

AAJ: You mentioned playing duo with Moeketsi and you've made records with players like Gato Barbieri, Archie Shepp, and Buddy Tate, just to name a few. Did your early collaborations with Moeketsi drive you to pursue productions with these particular saxophonists?

AI: Well, in our form of music, jazz music, the first voice that one looks at to express your composition, those melodic lines, would be the saxophone or the trumpet or other horn players. The reason for doing the collaborations with these saxophone players is because there is the first line of presentation for me as composer at the piano and then one horn player will lead to others. And I've always worked with the formula of four horns in front, bass, drums, and piano. That gives me a basic wide spectrum of possibilities of colors. And it's affordable!

AAJ: How important do you think that a musician's concept of life is in the development of his or her playing?

AI: It's absolutely important. We confuse music with sound. Our concern and investigation and study is with sound. The illustrious poet Rumi said, "There's only one sound. Everything else is echo." Find that first initial sound within ourselves. As musicians, for me at least, it's discovering that the sound that resonates within us and resonates with the universe, some call it gravitational waves. In Japan, the word is 'hado.' But it's principally the same formula or essence that pervades the whole universe. So it's sound that's then translated into what we call music.

AAJ: Many people conflate music with sound and they forget about the moments that aren't filled with sound. And you've spoken before about the power of space and silence.

AI: Silence.

AAJ: The greats—Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk—these players knew how to utilize silence.

AI: Exactly.

AAJ: Something that really struck me when I was listening to The Balance was your use of space and silence. Can you tell me a little bit about what was happening in that space when you made the record?

AI: I was trying to find somebody, a record company, for at least the support of what I'm trying to do. And it was quite difficult because, again, this concept of silence, and sound and silence, I find it's difficult for people in the industry to understand what we are doing because basically it almost looks like everything is relegated to the situation that you must fill up the sound with everything. And so somebody introduced me to this young company in London, Gearbox, and this young man, Darrell Sheinman. We were in London for the jazz festival and Darrell found one day open in the studio, Abbey Road, that area. Excellent, as we all know in terms of capturing intimate sound. And the band arrived from New York that very same morning and I arrived the day before and we only had that open space —that one day of recording. The musicians came off the flight, went to the hotel, picked up a coffee on the run to the studio. They got to the studio and set it up and because we had been rehearsing most of the material before and performing it in concert, it was tight. And the new compositions, it took a minute to get there. But of course I've got these incredible musicians with me and I'm blessed that I'm able to work with them and listen to them and they're really unbelievable musicians. Highly-skilled technically but also most importantly emotionally conducive to what I'm doing. So we finished the recording session with one and half hours left to spare.

AAJ: Plenty of time to go get another coffee!

AI: Yes, we could settle down for at least one cup of coffee and green tea.

AAJ: If you had it your way, ideally, would you make every record like this? You put a huge emphasis on preparation, but is this a typical recording process for you?

AI: Yes. Because I don't understand why it would take six months to record a record that is 40 minutes long. See, I think that preparation should come before you get to the studio. But with my musicians... it depends on the capacity of the musicians. Thelonious Monk was in the studio with a group, I think Ben Riley, Charlie Rouse, and they were rehearsing Monk's new music and then Charlie Rouse asked Monk, "Monk, when do you want me to play a solo?" And Monk said, "Just find a nice play to go in and in you go." This is fantastic! "Just find a nice place!"

AAJ: This just speaks to his supreme faith in his musicians and if this is the parallel, it says a lot about the faith you put in your musicians as well.

AI: It's true!

AAJ: Speaking of Monk, there's a story you've recounted in a number of other interviews about meeting Monk in New York for the first time and his reaction to you thanking him for what he's done for you as a pianist. Now that you've been to all of these different places and now that you're sort of taking a lot of these young musicians under your wing, have you ever been in a situation like that when you are perhaps in Monk's shoes and somebody expresses a similar sentiment?

AI: Yes, of course-and it's not just with musicians, but with people and how they react to the music. I have this song called 'The Wedding' and people come up to us, couples come up to us at concerts and say they used that recording for their wedding reception. We were playing a festival in London and the promoter told us that there was a man who would like to meet us. Apparently he'd been waiting almost the whole day and we met with him and he said that he drove five hours to come to the concert. He's a medical doctor and he deals with children in comatose. And this young girl, she was comatose for a few years and nothing helped. Then one day he put on the earphones and played "The Wedding" for her and she came out of her comatose. In Tokyo, one of our friends gave us this message, that this lady had contacted them. She went for major surgery and she asked the doctors if they could play "The Wedding" as she goes into surgery. So these are the kinds of reactions that we get from people and I think it's an organic way of people expressing what they believe through music and this is gratifying in the sense that I don't know how it works. Maybe I don't want to know. We just play the music.

AAJ: Music is the breath of life.

AI: We are blessed. We are blessed.

AAJ: There have been several instances over the course of your career where you've revisited tunes, reworked tunes. "Peace" and "The Aloe and the Wild Rose" come to mind immediately but looking at The Balance in particular, you include "The Balance," "Jabula," and "Tuang Guru"—what is it that brings you back to these compositions?

AI: Precisely because our whole concept of sound and gravitational wave—there is no end. There's no stopping. And in our tradition, if in the community there is an event, you've got to do a devotion or something that needs to be done in a communal activity. And this happens in all societies everywhere in the world. That way you really engage with the community and nothing ever stops. This is what we're doing with the song "Dreamtime," and that last chord—it sort of just hangs. Dreamtime says there's no beginning and no end. And there's this idea that something must end. It's quite alien to our concept of understanding ourselves. So when I go back to these compositions, everything unfolds on a daily basis with the same composition. There's no saying, "okay, now this is complete." And I've been studying budō and there is this idea of asymmetry. Nothing is symmetrical because if something is symmetrical, there's no reason to engage. Because it's complete, right? But if it's asymmetrical, then the listener or audience, the viewer in drawn into it. And this is the principle of asymmetry. And so revisiting these compositions is finding that asymmetry that is embedded in there, that's really embedded in how we live and the principle of the universe which is ying-yang, plus minus, or whatever we call it.

AAJ: You've extended these teachings in a more literal sense to educational outreach. The tradition of education is crucial to the continuation of this music, crucial to the continued growth of people—how has that educational tradition changed in your lifetime?

AI: Blood, sweat, and tears! There's this principle of investing in loss, which is a very challenging situation to be in and many people do not have the capacity or destiny to follow that because if you invest in loss, it means that you do not expect anything in return. So that means that that really deals with the ego. But of course you have to use the ego to achieve something but you don't let the ego be dominant. The whole idea of investing in loss is that when I play one note, it should be without any ego embedded in it. So there's this process of refinement, and refinement, and refinement, and refinement within the self so that we can try to be as truthful and as honest as possible with what we present to the audience. Because once I strike the note, there's nothing I can do about it anymore.

AAJ: Do you view yourself as a teacher?

AI: No! Please no! I've never understood this principle, something that is so alien to our own cosmology, and this idea of "mentors" resonates in Africa and Japan this idea of mentors. We have mentors and people who prefer to remain anonymous and tell us, "Don't tell anybody about us! Because if you do, you know the consequences! Don't tell anybody!" From them we learn, just that principle of not wanting everybody to know—this is that idea of investing in loss. And all my teachers, they're all younger than me. They're all incredible people. Some of them are not necessarily musicians. In fact, most of them are not musicians. But that principle of understanding and thinking about it intellectually, this is one position, but actually to put it in practice and invest in loss. I am fortunate that I met and studied with these great teachers who prefer to remain anonymous. I've studied traditional budō in Japan for fifty years and a few years ago my teacher gave me a certificate to teach. I asked my teacher, "why do you give me this? Because I don't know anything." And he said, "That's why I give it to you, because I too don't know anything." It's this mutual journey that we all embark upon.

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