Shaman Sounds: Abdullah Ibrahim at the Michigan Theater


Abdullah Ibrahim and Ekaya at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor

Detroit baritone saxophonist Alex Harding (pictured far right) joined Abdullah Ibrahim and Ekaya at the Michigan Theater. Photo by Christopher Porter.

Abdullah Ibrahim's concert at the Michigan Theater on April 13 began like all his shows: the pianist alone on stage with his instrument, playing a meditative piece filled with sustained chords, floating harmonies, and a sound that slipped naturally from Bach to blues. Then Cleave Guyton (flute) and Noah Jackson (cello) joined Ibrahim for the chamber-jazz piece "Dream Time" from 2014's Mukashi.

It was in these solo and trio moments that listeners could best appreciate the 83-year-old Ibrahim's piano playing -- because otherwise, he didn't play much at all.

When the seven members of Ibrahim's long-time band Ekaya would join in, Ibrahim was content to lay out for entire songs save for, perhaps, a tiny flourish. Except for a few bars at the start of a few songs, the pianist didn't comp all night, leaving the group's horn players plenty of harmonic freedom since there were no chords to help define the songs.

Ibrahim acted more as a conduit for the music, a sorcerer bandleader happy to hand over his compositions to his faithful followers.

I would like to have heard Mr. Ibrahim play more. While he sat and waited, all the other musicians took turns playing solos for each piece when he didn’t play but a few chords.
--1IreneFlick3, comments

This Ibrahim tour is part of his ongoing resurrection of his late '50s to early '60s band The Jazz Epistles, which included trumpeter/flugelhornist Hugh Masekela, trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, alto saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi, bassist Johnny Gertze, and drummer Makaya Ntshoko.

But this tour, as it has been since 2016 when the project began, is more about honoring The Jazz Epistles' contribution to African jazz -- after all, it was the first all-black ensemble to record an LP in South Africa, the limited-to-500-pressed Jazz Epistle, Verse 1.

Ibrahim, Masekela, and Gwangwa were the only Jazz Epistles available to perform on June 17, 2016, in the South African city Ekurhuleni. Moeketsi and Gertze died many years prior and Ntshoko has been living in Switzerland for many years with notably few appearances in the past 10 years.

Masekela was originally supposed to be a part of this U.S. tour, but he succumbed to prostate cancer in January, and he missed most of last year's Jazz Epistle shows due to illness.

So, in many ways, this was more of an Ekaya show, with a lot of chamber-jazz elements alongside the updated takes on The Jazz Epistles swinging bebop tunes.

This is the sort of jazz I would listen to if I were on the space station for a year. It was pretty somber and at times classical. That is a good thing if you are trying to stay in control. I wouldn´t put the Jazz Epistles on the boom box during a pick up game of basketball...not a lot of bounce. But a very professional show. We enjoyed it very much. That´s my story and I´mm stickin´to it!
--Robert Kinsey, comments

While I wouldn't describe Ekaya as perfect space-station music, I'm with Robert on one thing: I also wouldn't bump the band on a boombox during a basketball game -- pickup or professional. While Ekaya's musicians can swing like mad, especially on The Jazz Epistles' songs: "Dollar's Mood," "Carol’s Drive," "Vary-oo-vum," and "Scullery Department." Those are pure hard bop, whereas Ibrahim's later compositions generally contain a chamber-jazz element that focuses more on harmony and colors than single-note runs at blazing speeds. I can't imagine doing my usual backflip slam-dunks to music this beautiful.

Regular Ekaya members Cleave Guyton (alto saxophone, flute, piccolo), Lance Bryant (tenor sax), Marshall McDonald (baritone sax), Andrae Murchison (trombone), Noah Jackson (cello, bass), Will Terrill (drums) were joined by Freddie Hendrix, one of several trumpeters who have filled Masekela's role, including Terrence Blanchard. 

The difference in Ibrahim and Masekela's personalities -- whether on stage or off -- are a study in opposites. Where the horn player was an exuberant extrovert, the pianist has a calm shaman vibe. Their music reflects this, too, so during Ibrahim's Ekaya-era compositions, Hendrix kept things calm and compact. But during The Jazz Epistles songs, Hendrix let loose with all manners of octave jumps, slurs, and dynamic runs that ended in ecstatic high notes.

For what it's worth, I thought it took half the performance before they really got into anything reminiscent of Hugh Masekela. Trumpet player was fantastic, as was baritone sax & trombone.
--Tom Martin, comments

While Hendrix's more animated solos received the audience's most rapt cheers, Guyton's piccolo playing was remarkably dexterous. The tiny flute sounded powerful in his hands, the notes flying with clarity and pitch-perfect accuracy.

Guyton's piccolo usage was a clear nod to kwela, a South African music style that featured the pennywhistle, which helped define the sound of the apartheid era's shantytown sound.

But overall, the South African vibes were in the background at this concert celebrating South Africa's most legendary jazz band.

Absent were Ibrahim's post-Epistles tunes such as "Mannenberg," which is steeped in unmistakably South African melodies and named after the Cape Town township established in 1966 by the apartheid government.

And that's fine.

Ibrahim is so well versed in so many styles -- and has written numerous compositions employing all of them -- that they all can't be presented in concert.

Really an enjoyable show! I much preferred this Abdullah Ibrahim visit to the last. Excellent rhythm section; some nice solos; and always love Ibrahim's contemplative solo work. A well constructed set.
--Iamnotu, comments

My internet person Iamnotu is referring to Ibrahim and Ekaya's 2015 appearance at the Michigan Theater. But based on C. Andrew Hovan's review on All About Jazz, the show three years ago sounds fairly similar: the pianist shining in solo segments and sitting out for most of the ensemble playing.

In fact, Ibrahim's concerts have had very similar setlists for the non-Jazz Epistles tunes for many years now. (Check the video above.) I wasn't there for the 2015 concert, but I did see Ibrahim in a trio setting in 2004 in his Cape Town hometown. In fact, I was supposed to interview Ibrahim that weekend, but he never showed up. His person is as elusive as his mysterious music. 

But at 83, Ibrahim has earned the right to sit on stage, Buddha-like, and listen to super-talented musicians interpret his music, which he borderline did at the Michigan Theater. At this point, it's not Ibrahim's keyboard work that should be the focus; it's his rich musical legacy, especially when it can create a mood that's filled with joy, mystery, and beauty.

I'll let my man Brazen -- who may or may not be related to me -- have the last word:

The music had an atmosphere that I often don't hear. It was just fantastic.
--BrazenCoronet17, the kid sitting next to me in the concert

Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.

Setlist: "Dream Time," ""Peace," "Nisa," "Mississippi," "Sotho Blue," "Song for Sathima," "Dollar's Mood," "Carol’s Drive," "Vary-oo-vum," "Scullery Department," "Tuang Guru," and "Water From an Ancient Well."