Abdullah Ibrahim with his New Trio & Ekaya: Royal Festival Hall. 15 November 2014

One of the highlights of this year’s London Jazz Festival was a rare opportunity to attend a performance by Abdullah Ibrahim at London’s Royal Festival Hall.

I last saw him play in the 90’s, when a solo concert was part of the Greenwich Jazz Festival programme and I was relishing a chance to see him at work with other instrumentalists, as the gig promised solo piano, work as part of a trio and in a septet.

The radio presenter who introduced the evening assured us, incorrectly as it turned out, that we would be begging the pardon of those seated next to us as we would be needing to move our bodies when the band played Township tunes.

What we actually got was an evening where subtlety and virtuosity were the keywords rather than funk and energy. The expected exhuberance was present but it was a delicately weighted concert hall set, rather than a dance set that we received.

While listening, I thought of a young Dollar Brand impressing the Duke Ellington, to the extent that the older genius became a mentor. The evening commenced with Ibrahim alone on stage, in absolute command of the RFH’s mighty concert grand piano for an extended solo piece that took me to the good place that only the best pianists can reach. On its conclusion he introduced Noah Jackson, who played cello in this segment and Cleave Guyton doubling on flute and clarinet. They took us through about six short pieces that reminded me of the Duet set that Abdullah Ibrahim recorded as Dollar Brand with Archie Shepp, which I took a look at here.

After an intermission, the full septet added tenor and baritone saxophone, drums and trombone. The set was made up of mature and exquisite arrangements with Abdullah Ibrahim sitting out for long periods, seemingly to enjoy and absorb the voicings that he had written and which were being played out for him by the accompanying ensemble.

Overall, the performance was very easy on the ear but seemed to lack a certain spark. There was no sense of musical risk-taking and the accompanists seemed to have been offered little scope to add their own contributions in their short solos. They were more the well-drilled back line rather than contributors with freedom to improvise.

What the audience got was an evening of refined concert hall Jazz from a great musician who is now 80 years old. There were only the slightest nods to the Township sound and definitely no dancing in the aisles. I wasn’t disappointed as the opportunity to see Abdullah Ibrahim playing what he wanted to play in the way he wanted his music to be heard was too good to miss. We were, after all being treated to an evening with a musical genius.

As I close in on completing this review I’m listening to Voice Of Africa, a recording made in 1974 in Cape Town. It has something in abundance that last Saturday’s RFH concert lacked (as well as the great anthem Mannenberg that you can hear on this post from last year here). The recording clarfies that the qualities that were missing from this London concert were exhuberent inventiveness and soul. Saturday’s cool proficiency can go a long way but music that comes from both the head and the heart is what really moves me. It seems almost mean to rate this as a 6/10 performance- but that is what the great Man is getting.