Abdullah Ibrahim made for an understated closing to 2018’s EFG London Jazz Festival, but there’s no denying his absolute entitlement to the occasion. Ibrahim’s strength and class come from his modesty both in tone and volume: 90 minutes passed without a single word said for the duration of the performance. Instead, the 84-year-old opened the set with an extended solo musing at the piano, picking out tones of Bill Evans as he meditated on emerging themes and melodies that felt like spirituals in every sense of the word. After ten days’ festival featuring 2000 artists performing across 325 shows it was tranquil contrast to bask in the music of a singular legend.
He could have held our attention with his solo piano alone but Ibrahim’s distinctive, frequently homophonic, harmonies were magnified by his six-piece band: Ekaya. It was only a year ago that Ibrahim was billed to play the same festival alongside trumpeter Hugh Masekala, an occasion sadly made impossible by the horn player’s illness, but what should have been the reassembling of two of South Africa’s greatest jazz legends. This year the honour (and pressure?) fell to developing jazz star Keyon Harrold. To the occasion he injected youth (50 years Ibrahim’s junior), gritty tenacity and a few more octaves for good measure. When Ekaya improvised on a blues number, it was Harrold’s trumpet solo that pushed just that little harder, further, deeper.
For the second half of the set Ibrahim’s earlier dynamism faded a little: his playing became more sparse and instead he attentively listened from the piano stool in easy contentment with occasional direction of the band and their guest, Harrold. Perhaps, the pleasure of one great admiring the emergence of another.