Music that satisfies completely

From music we get all sorts of things. And one of them is completion.

Jazz musicians Abdullah Ibrahm, Noah Jackson and Cleave Guyton - the Abdullah Ibrahim Trio, performing in the main auditorium at the Barbican in London on 15 July 2023
Ibrahim, Jackson and Guyton

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 mean I love the probing of the free jazz experiment, the radical groove of the whole post-bop flowering, the crunching hip-hop mash-ups of the newest jazz generation, the grandeur and range of the golden age. I love it all but I can barely converse about the form. So I don’t think I’ve ever blogged about jazz.

Anyway, there’s a first time for everything. I went to a fancy jazz gig last weekend – not the sweaty basement kind. This was the kind that happens in a big Central London auditorium with a lot of nicely-dressed older hipsters in comfortable seating (decent number of berets and cravats and denim fisherman’s smocks present).

We were all there for Abdullah Ibrahim – a survivor, a sixty-year veteran, a unique figure in the music and the culture but also an outsider, from right at the heart of the tradition but with an African inflection – with a Cape Town inflection to be precise – that’s so closely identified with him and his work that we might as well call it his own.

I was expecting to enjoy it. I’d last seen him play in the 1980s, when the music of South African exiles like Ibrahim was enjoying a bit of prominence (and even some chart hits), largely thanks to the cruelty and venality of the apartheid regime.

But it was more than enjoyable. It was miraculous, I think I’d say. I haven’t stopped thinking about it. It was in some ways slight – not a riot of big solos and enormous tunes, not a party, not a three-hour celebration – but miraculous anyway. I’ve settled on three reasons, three factors that aren’t always present in a performance of any kind but were joined here to make this one of the most affecting, satisfying concerts I’ve ever seen. My attempt to organise these miraculous elements follows.

They’re artists. To state the obvious. The glorious, uncannily coherent, entirely satisfying groove of the Abdullah Ibrahim Trio is unarguable. 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, hinting at some spontaneity in the set list), Noah Jackson on bass and cello, and Ibrahim himself at the shiny Fazioli grand, is a perfectly satisfying experience, a kind of completion. You just smile.

They’re a unity. All three musicians are fully present in this enterprise. Ibrahim, the unquestioned master, Ellington’s protegé, Monk’s friend, plays sparingly and is sometimes silent for an achingly long time – almost a whole number – while the others solo in the accepted small band manner. And because all this is so subtle the audience doesn’t know exactly how to respond – the conventional round of applause at the end of a solo doesn’t happen. These transitions are different, slightly disorienting.

When Ibrahim rejoins it’s often to provide ornament or a kind of musical comment to the other players. 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 – sometimes he plays with one hand.

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. It’s as if Ibrahim’s old showmanship has been sacrificed here for connection. Humility and respect for each other circulate in this band. 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. Switching instruments as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to set aside an upright bass and sit to play the cello or to put down your flute and pick up a clarinet and then a piccolo. But these musicians exhibit, throughout the concert, a deference to the boss that’s fascinating and touching but never demeaning. Ibrahim, from his keyboard, is unquestioned – a leader, a patriarch, to his 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 the shadows while he plays, then, at another, they return. This voluntary retreat into the darkness is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before in jazz. A kind of embodiment of respect for Ibrahim’s artistry and his seniority. It was profoundly moving.

At one point we see some confusion – Jackson and Guyton aren’t certain where they should be, there’s a miscommunication, some touching hesitation, some glances exchanged. Should they go to the back again? Jackson asks Ibrahim, humbly, “are we playing?” Another signal – a smile – confirms that they are. And we all sigh, as the groove reassembles itself.