So the wife and I (she studied jazz at Pretoria Technikon) went to see Abdullah Ibrahim perform in Durban for the first time in 12 years, last night. And I’ll be straight with you – before this performance I’d about as much knowledge of Abdullah Ibrahim’s music as I did of, say, Sun Ra. ‘Who?’ you might ask. Quite. But there you go – there’s no excuse for any South African to harbour a lasting ignorance of South Africa’s ‘greatest living composer’ and one of the most remarkable musicians to have come out of the beloved country, and so it was that I determined to set that to rights. Sure, I knew he was a jazz pianist and that 'Dollar Brand' was the name he was known by until he converted to Islam, it’s a piece of musical trivia up there with Cat Stevens and Yusuf Islam. But bear in mind, I’m not from Cape Town, I’ve spent most of my years in the shorebreak of Stone City and ‘Manenberg’ sounds to my ear like a mountain named after a Jewish dude with the name Mannie. OK, I lie – I know it’s a suburb of Cape Town, and I do in fact know something of Ibrahim’s music - for example, everyone has a snippet of the unofficial struggle anthem, Manenberg, on file somewhere in their memory. You may not think you do, but believe you me, you do, and once you hear a sample of this, one of his more prominent pieces of keywork, you’ll be all ‘ahhh – that tune!’ I’ve also caught Abdullah on the box, on one of those godawfully tryhard late-nite jazz programmes that do the medium justice about as much as MTV plays intelligent music. On these, I’d always thought him somewhat reticent, even a little condescending. Mind you, considering the vapid questions asked by cack-handed presenters, it’s a testament to his patience that he remained on set at all. But I digress.
Sat in the posture-killing chairs in the third row at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal’s Jazz Centre, the Zen of the man is what makes the first impression. Cool, calm and collected, he silently takes the stage in trademark karate shirt, along with his cohorts in the Abdullah Ibrahim Trio, namely New Yorkers Belden Bullock (on bass) and George Gray (on skins). Working samples of his new album, Senzo (which means ‘ancestor’ in Chinese and Japanese, and translates as ‘creator’ in Sotho) into his repertoire, he is the epitome of control at the keys. Beautifully rambling solo pieces meander through a melancholy sonic landscape all his own, with delicate free jazz diversions lacing through the complement of bass and drums. Then the pace is picked up, with the incredibly deft drum skills of Gray (who never breaks a sweat and makes it all look so easy) adding beef to his rising crescendos, and the perpetually beatific Bullock adding groove. With three versions of Manenberg quoted through the two hours of performance, and a nod to jazz standards with his rendition of Misty, the assembled jazzophiles got their fill, whilst this jazz ignoramus was left (albeit with a fucked posture thanks to those torture-perfect chairs) suitably impressed and in no doubt as to why Mr. Ibrahim has the respect of so many and is talked about in hushed tones of awe. King of the keys? Bet your bottom Abdullah.
This article also published on Levi's Original Music Magazine.