Out of Africa… to Basingstoke

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Neil McKim catches a performance from South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim’s UK tour 

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I made a beeline last night: between Bristol and Basingstoke. And what for? To see another fine example of post-war urban planning? No, to see South African piano legend Abdullah Ibrahim (formerly Dollar Brand) perform one of only three UK gigs, at The Anvil.
 
To say the pianist has a presence is an understatement. Without a single word to the audience, the immaculately dressed Ibrahim, with suit and red tie, placed both his hands together in a gesture of welcome and smiled. It was all that was needed. None of the tunes were introduced – they didn’t need to be – the music spoke for itself. He began playing, firstly solo and then drawing in each of his Ekaya septet of players. Firstly the resonant bass of Belden Bullock and the long-time collaborator George Gray on drums, and then the stunning New York-sourced brass section. Ibrahim, whose performances range from solo to big band, was here returning to his Ekaya format – the same he used at the first London Jazz Festival in 1993.
 
As the pieces progressed – I lost count how many there were over the two-hour set with no interval – the piano withdrew gradually more and more, to the point when he was adding the odd note to the tight harmonies and spiralling solos – much as bandleaders like Duke Ellington, his mentor and collaborator, would have done. A nod or gesture from Ibrahim signalled to the band what had to be done. But what shone through was the return to the gospel-based structures of Ibrahim’s roots. Growing up in Cape Town’s District Six – the area that was notoriously cleared by the apartheid regime – the music of Ibrahim’s Methodist chapel upbringing still clearly resonates.
 
As the drum subsided to a sombre beat of a street march it was time for the great man to speak. Taking the microphone he incanted the title of this landmark tune ‘Water from an ancient Well’ several times and then introduced the band, saying ‘welcome home’ (‘Ekaya’ means home). Each member came out to the front in turn, clasped their hands together and bowed to the audience and then to Ibrahim – who bowed back. Clearly a mutual gesture of respect – both from and for – one of South Africa’s most esteemed musicians.