Iridescent Ibrahim Leads Multi-Horn Boon At Barbican Hall

The Barbican's foyer is still resounding to the tumultuous multi-horned attack of the Don-qui Five, part of the Nordic Jazz Comets take-over, but in the main hall an atmosphere of calm prevails. Abdullah Ibrahim’s tall, frail figure is greeted with rapturous applause as he walks onstage and sits at the piano. After a moments pause, he starts to play; a quiet, meditative solo, with hints of gospel voicings and simple, township melodies, moving imperceptibly into darker sonorities and out again. It’s like sitting in the next room, listening to the man strumming at the piano, lost in his own intimate musical reverie, and it comes almost as a surprise as the band filter quietly onstage and join in. Hesitantly at first, then with growing presence, they unite in a unison riff, building like clouds until Keyon Harrold bursts forth with a solo that’s like a dazzling ray of sunshine.

The five horns take turns in a tag-team exchange of solos, finishing in an almighty bass statement from Noah Jackson; Ibrahim barely touches the keys until the conclusion, then starts again in the intervening silence with a solemn church ballad that draws a stirring performance from trombonist Andrae Murchsion. Then come dark, cinematic chords from the horns, voiced like a miniature Gil Evans band, out of which drums and bass burst with a super-fast blazing bop tempo. Section leader Cleave Guyton steps forward with, of all things, a piccolo, and lays down a wild solo, setting the scene for Harrold to take flight over the headlong rush of the rhythm section. Ibrahim has dropped out again – as each player takes to the mic, he announces them with a single chord dropped into the racing pulse, his energy turned totally towards the band, overseeing and digging the proceedings.

Jackson ducks behind the piano then reappears, seated, his impressive form encircling a cello, and he and Guyton on flute join the leader for a chamber recital of the kind of major-key South African folk melody that Ibrahim is known for. There’s another solo piano interlude, as a limpid pool of calm, before the band swagger into a boppish mid-tempo line like something from Monk At Town Hall – as Monk was wont to do, then Ibrahim drops out altogether under much of the soloing. There’s a supremely musical drum solo from Will Terrill, and a slow Township march with Keyon Harrold tearing down the walls with his powerfully down-home solo.

Throughout not a word is spoken to the audience – Ibrahim almost seems like a spectator at his own show, watching with an approving nod of the head, quietly guiding proceedings, adding a soft piano commentary in the breaks. The quality of the musicianship is really outstanding, with superb soloing from everybody (special mentions for Lance Bryant on tenor and Marshall McDonald on bari) and the horn section breathing as one on the unison sections; but there’s still no doubt who’s boss onstage, and the closing trio recital, with Jackson back on cello shows why he was described by Mandela as ‘South Africa’s Mozart’. The crowd give a standing ovation, and then as quietly as he came, he’s gone back into the waiting darkness of the wings.

Eddie Myer
Photo by Tim Dickeson

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