Live Review: Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya in Brooklyn

South African piano eminence takes on his Jazz Epistles legacy, on his own meditative terms

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Abdullah Ibrahim at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, April 2018 (photo by Mike Benigno)

Three times during a two-hour concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on April 18, Abdullah Ibrahim sat alone at the piano, gently coaxing melodies from the keys that were by turns rhapsodic and elegiac. Each time, the South African bandleader’s wanderings incorporated strains of the same simple, hymn-like tune, familiar yet maddeningly difficult to identify (at least for this writer, although it shared traits with both “Edelweiss” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem”). Each time, the other seven musicians in his band, Ekaya, gradually appeared from the wings, adding their voices to his reverie. And each time, Ibrahim’s direct contributions would then lessen, until entire pieces would go by in which he played barely a note. But as he bobbed his head back and forth, breathing heavily or mouthing wordless syllables or both—it was hard to tell which sometimes—in tandem with the beat, his continuing engagement with the music was clear. Then the musicians left the stage, and the cycle began again.

It was almost as if Ibrahim were repeatedly dreaming his bandmates into existence. Or, if you will, using the Force, much like Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi, to project images onstage to do what he could not.

Could not, or simply preferred not to? Again, hard to tell. Ibrahim’s 83-year-old hands shake a bit, and it was impossible to ignore that whenever tempos rose, he stopped playing. He never took a conventional solo or comped underneath others; instead, his piano lines became the connecting tissue between solos, commenting on the end of one and the beginning of another, before falling silent. There could be physical reasons for this, but it could also be a stylistic choice, following the lead of Ibrahim’s early sponsor Duke Ellington, whose playing often served as occasional punctuation rather than an improvisational focus point.

Abdullah Ibrahim's Ekaya pays tribute to the Jazz Epistles at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; April 18, 2018 (photo by Mike Benigno)
Abdullah Ibrahim’s Ekaya pays tribute to the Jazz Epistles at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; April 18, 2018 (photo by Mike Benigno)

In any case, it would have been hard for Ibrahim to dream up a better supporting cast than the other members of Ekaya: Cleave Guyton Jr. on flute and alto saxophone, Lance Bryant on tenor, Marshall McDonald on baritone, Andrae Murchison on trombone, Noah Jackson on cello and bass and Will Terrill on drums, plus guest trumpeter Kenyatta Beasley, appearing in place of Freddie Hendrix. (Ravi Coltrane was also scheduled to join the band the following night.) Though all were superb in rendering Ibrahim’s mystical-sounding, harmonically open compositions, Guyton and Murchison stood out. When Guyton played flute, as on the absorbing “Water From an Ancient Well,” he added an almost tangible softness to the arrangements. Murchison, meanwhile, served as the frontline’s essential thickening agent on selections like “Blue Bolero” and “Mississippi.”

The original purpose of this show was to honor Ibrahim’s late-’50s band, the Jazz Epistles, and to reunite him with the other star of that group, trumpeter Hugh Masekela. Due to Ibrahim’s and Masekela’s subsequent fame, and the fact that they only made one album together before being effectively disbanded by their country’s government—the playing of jazz was banned in South Africa in the wake of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre—the Jazz Epistles have acquired a legendary status over the years. Sadly, Masekela’s death in January made the reunion an impossibility. Had he been present, one suspects this would have been a very different concert.

Abdullah Ibrahim and guest trumpeter Kenyatta Beasley at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; April 18, 2018 (photo by Mike Benigno)
Abdullah Ibrahim and guest trumpeter Kenyatta Beasley at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; April 18, 2018 (photo by Mike Benigno)

As it was, a few Jazz Epistles numbers did make it into the set, but for all the enjoyability of “Scullery Department” or “Carol’s Drive,” they distinguished themselves mainly for the ways in which they differed from the material that formed the bulk of the show: more obvious in their boppishness, with more concise solos, clever for sure but not as deep or exploratory as Ibrahim’s later work. And in the end, Masekela’s absence only added to the poignancy of Ibrahim’s solo ruminations. Here, it seemed, was Cape Town’s last Jedi, summoning the spirit of a fallen comrade with every note he played and every note he didn’t.

Album review: A recent reissue of Ibrahim’s classic Ancient Africa.