From music we get all sorts of things. And one of them is completion.
I love jazz but even after decades of exposure to every different genre I’m still basically an ignoramus. I can’t speak with any authority about the music or the culture. I share Spotify links with my jazz pal Paul, I accumulate books about jazz. I wonder at the richness and endurance of the form, at its eccentric presence, right at the join of ‘serious’ and ‘pop’ and ‘folk’ cultures. I love the probing and stretching of the free jazz experiment, the radical groove of the whole post-bop panoply, the crunching mash-ups of the newest jazz generation, the grandeur and range of the greats. I love it all but I can barely converse about the form.
I went to a fancy jazz gig last weekend – the kind that happens in a big auditorium with a lot of happy older hipsters in comfortable seating. We were there for Abdullah Ibrahim – a survivor, a sixty-year veteran, a unique figure in the music and the culture and a bit of an oddball, from right at the heart of the tradition but with an African inflection that’s so closely identified with his own work that we might as well call it his own.
I don’t usually write about concerts on here. In fact I think this is the first time in over 20 years. But this concert was special, miraculous I think I’d say. Perhaps not least because it’s almost forty years since the last time I saw him play. Humour me. I think it was remarkable for three reasons, three factors that aren’t always present and were joined here to make this one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen.
They’re artists. To state the obvious. The glorious, uncannily beautiful, entirely satisfying groove of the Abdullah Ibrahim Trio is an unarguable force. I don’t know how else to put this. It’s a spellbinding wholeness. And the three musicians involved are from that class of human beings – the one I envy most – that has made of their art a kind of jewel, worked until perfect. Watching Cleave Guyton on flute, piccolo and clarinet (his alto sax stood on its stand throughout, unplayed), Noah Jackson on bass and cello, and Ibrahim himself at the Fazioli grand, is a perfectly satisfying experience, a kind of completion.
They’re a unity. All three musicians are fully present in this enterprise. Ibrahim, the unquestioned master, Ellington’s protegé, plays sparingly and is sometimes silent for almost a whole number while the others solo in the jazz manner. When he rejoins it’s often to provide ornament or a kind of musical comment to the others. Then he’ll play alone for several minutes, spare and elemental – his famous, rolling, big-hearted tunes hardly present – hinted at, indicated. His solos are less complete than those of his band, more sketchy, as if they’ve thinned out over the decades, reduced to a kind of degree zero, the minimum necessary. Small bands are like this, of course, held in tension by the awkward balance of soaring individual musicianship and mutual dependence, ego and love for others. Humility and respect for each other circulate in this band, though, it’s almost visible.
They’re a hierarchy. Guyton and Jackson are evidently superlative musicians, but they’re not leaders. They observe the protocols of the jazz lifer – their brilliance, their ease, their spontaneity is evident. But they exhibit, throughout the concert, a deference to the boss that’s fascinating and touching but never demeaning. Ibrahim, at the piano, is an unquestioned leader, a patriarch, to the band. Two or three times, at an almost invisible signal from him, the other two musicians move to the back of the stage and sit quietly in shadow while he plays, then, at another, they return. At one point we saw some confusion – Jackson and Guyton weren’t certain where they should be, there was a miscommunication, some touching hesitation. Should they go to the back again? Jackson asked Ibrahim “are we playing?” Another signal – a smile – confirms that they are. And we all sigh, as the groove reassembles itself.