I first heard Abdullah Ibrahim’s music in 2005 and was instantly mesmerized. I found out he was playing in Paris in 2006, and, appropriately for a nineteen year old, dropped everything and bought a ticket to the City of Lights. He played a sold out Cite De La Musique and was downright transformative. The concert hall was pin quiet for over two hours of uninterrupted solo piano, including two encores.
When Abduallah Ibrahim is at his peak, his music can be hallucinogenic. With no apparent destination in mind, Mr. Ibrahim hypnotizes with his masterful left hand, unfolding landscapes open and free to accommodate every type of experience. You may find yourself in the depths of sorrow then suddenly you have wandered into an African Wedding then, just as abruptly, you might find yourself at heights of religious ecstasy. All of this transpires slowly, methodically, as time starts to rock, sway, loosen and expand.
At this point in his decades long career, Mr. Ibrahim allows his vast repertoire of original songs to create the landscape and musical language for a highly talented group of musicians: Noah Jackson (Bass/Cello), Will Terill (Drums), Cleave Guyton Jr. (Alto-Sax, Flute, and Clarinet), Lance Bryant (Tenor-Sax), Andrae Murchison (Trombone, Trumpet), Marshall Mcdonald (Baritone-Sax). In 2017, I saw Mr. Ibrahim with his Ekaya group under a large, steaming hot tent in New Orleans. There, the music felt too far away, the interactions of the musicians too precise and too subtle to be appreciated from such a distance. The dynamic was far better Saturday night at the Jazz Standard. The sound was perfect and the room ideal to get lost in Mr. Ibrahim’s melodies.
The current members of Ekaya are deeply familiar with and handle the material brilliantly, but something is missing. Although headlined by Mr. Ibrahim, Ekaya is really about the band and, more to the point, really about the musicians in the band. Most of the arrangements are set up for solo work, and Mr. Ibrahim is very sparing with his complimenting. It is his humor and wit, his perspective that often feels absent. Mr. Ibrahim is content, aside from a handful of his own scattered solos, to let the band do the heavy lifting, setting off each tune with a few chords and then sitting out to enjoy the journey. It is no surprise however, that his eyes are almost always locked onto bassist Noah Jackson, who has the difficult, yet ably handled, task of replacing Mr. Ibrahim’s left hand.
As always, and as is his due, Mr. Ibrahim was thanked with loud and lasting applause. The admiration is due to his unique and magical contribution to the idiom, even if the responsibilities of expression and interpretation have largely been handed off to the ensemble.
Abdullah’s tour continues through America, Europe and Asia — details here.