Abdullah Ibrahim review 50 dazzling years of jazz distilled

There is a quality to pianist Abdullah Ibrahim’s music that makes it sound like a slow, sad goodbye. That may be because he spent the majority the 1960s to the 1990s in self-imposed exile from his home country South Africa – a protest against the racial segregation apartheid – or it may be to do with the st, downtempo way he picks out each note hunched behind his grand piano, improvising as if he is forever playing towards the end a phrase.

Now 84, Ibrahim has had a more varied career than most, pioneering the “Cape jazz” style the 1960s, heavily influenced by the likes Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington, before moving to New York to collaborate with Ellington himself and even leading the Duke Ellington Orchestra under his previous stage name, Dollar Brand, then converting to Islam, then returning to South Africa in the 70s to write Mannenberg, which became one the most famous anti-apartheid anthems the era.

With his horn-heavy band Ekaya, Ibrahim has now taken to playing shows as an elder statesman, opening with a brief solo section before letting his band fly, his direction subtle yet pervasive. He even stands behind his band for their final bows, pushing the younger generations forward insistently. It is a rare and revealing sight, then, to see Ibrahim perform an entire show solo on piano in the imperious setting London’s Cadogan Hall. He is an artist who has made his career as a writer ensemble music, finding his strength in harmony; here he barely glances at his sheet music, head bowed as he feels his way instinctively over the keys.

Abdullah Ibrahim review  50 dazzling years  jazz distilled


It is emotional music but there is a sprightliness to Ibrahim’s playing, as he bounces gently on his seat and mouths along through his phrases – some the more guttural vocalisations audible over the hushed reverence the crowd. It is a show two halves, yet the work is a single seamless improvisation, a palimpsest his five-decade career. He channels Monk in bursts a heavy, repetitive left hand, rhythmically hammering out jarring individual bass notes, while the right plays through freely, touching on shades Bill Evans’ modality before landing on his own fractal phrasing.

Along with other jazz piano legends’ influence, Ibrahim weaves his own compositions into the tapestry this recital. There is the plaintive refrain The Mountain, shades Sotho Blue, the tender romance Star Dance and bursts euphoric major chords and optimism from The Wedding. Each melody is played with due reverence, and then swiftly dismantled into something entirely new: the hallmark a true improviser, finding pockets originality without even the need for a response from other players. (There are certainly other pianists in attendance – most notably Zoe Rahman, nodding along and looking keenly for a glimpse his hands.)

This is a fluid performance, one which flows through its two hour-long halves without feeling as if a single composition has passed to a discernible end point. This performance may have sounded like a goodbye, but it doesn’t feel final. For someone as graciously talented as Ibrahim, there is always much more playing to be done, and more hands and minds to be inspired. Instead, it is an inshallah, a “see you again”.