Jazz: Abdullah Ibrahim, Carla Bley Bath Jazz Festival

Silence is golden
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The Independent Culture
If Abdullah Ibrahim ever wants a new song to close his shows, he could certainly try "Silent Night", for it fits his increasingly cloistered performances like a glove. When he last played Bath Festival as a soloist, he made less noise than many of the audience's internal organs, and although this time he brought a bassist and a drummer with him, they looked so scared that you could hardly get a peep out of them. This, of course, is exactly how Ibrahim likes it. By forcing his listeners to really listen, he is able to control the dynamics of a performance with absolute authority. And when those South African hymn-book chords start - eventually - to roll out their thunder, it provokes, by design, an enormous sense of release within the audience. And enormous applause.

But for the rest of the long (two-sets) show, he proceeded incrementally, letting out his wonderful stately themes and percussive piano effects a little at a time, at transistor radio volume in a hall built for 1,000. It was great, but boy was it hard work and, if it hadn't been in the context of a very rare performance by a much-loved master, few would have tolerated it. Over a 30-year period encompassing exile from South Africa to Europe and then New York, and a return to Cape Town after Mandela's release, Ibrahim - once known as Dollar Brand - has written some of the finest and most moving tunes in jazz. When his fingers press lightly over the notes to one of his greatest of all tunes, "The Wedding" (and there are perhaps 100 almost as good), anything, even excruciating silence, is worth the pay-off. By the end, everyone, even chastened bassist Marcus McLaurine and humbled drummer George Gray, seemed happy.

For some people, having one Carla Bley on stage would be unfortunate enough; to have two therefore looks like carelessness. But the stage setting for the second half of Bley's programme at Bath last Friday appeared to feature both herself and her Doppelganger, eerily positioned at their respective keyboards on either side of the orchestra. The other is actually Bley's daughter, Karen Mantler, but so similar are their hairstyles - a madwoman-in-the-attic frizz - and clothes - black, natch - that the effect is deeply troubling. Though I missed the first half's Contemporary Music Network commission for strings, many of the audiences on this tour have evidently found it troubling, too, but the second set's big-band features were gloriously up to the mark.

One solo by saxophonist Andy Sheppard was improvised so perfectly - building in stages from frothy, baroque flounces to wild and woolly Romantic steeps until it ended in a virtuoso display of heroic honking harmonics - that it more than justified a commission itself. Though at times with Bley you find yourself wishing that the fancy writing would come to an end and the band just play on, it's the discipline of the overall performance - and the fancy writing - that makes the freer moments stand out. As the massed brass and reeds punch out the changes you have to feel, even if sometimes rather grudgingly, that no one does it better.

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