When the pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim called his band Ekaya – a Zulu word meaning "home" or "at home" – home was the one thing he didn't have.
An exile from apartheid since 1963, when Duke Ellington heard him in a Zurich club and helped him move to America, Ibrahim (or Dollar Brand as he was known until his conversion to Islam), had returned briefly to South Africa in 1975, but found the political conditions too restricting. Back in New York, he abandoned free jazz in favour of a powerful reaffirmation of tonality, writing deep, intensely melancholy and nostalgic songs that conjured up the landscapes, peoples and traditions of his homeland. He put together a septet to play this music and Ekaya was born.
They became one of the most popular jazz ensembles of the Eighties, made some great albums (Water From an Ancient Well being the best-known), and appeared on the soundtrack to Claire Denis' film Chocolat (a drama of French colonialism, not the Johnny Depp confection). Then Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and Ibrahim was able to return home. Now 75, he divides his time between Cape Town and the Chelsea Hotel.
That Abdullah Ibrahim had formed a new version of his famous group was, therefore, big news. This UK debut (followed by the Barbican, London, and Anvil, Basingstoke) began solo, Ibrahim stroking the ivories with an imperious touch before the members of his trio, Belden Bullock on double bass and George Gray on drums, joined him. When, after another number, a quartet of youngish, African-American horn players came out of the wings, the temperature in the Sage's magnificent main hall rose several degrees.
It's a sound like no other: the front-line of alto or flute, tenor and baritone saxes plus trombone tootling unison lines against the gentle, padding piano motifs and easy shuffle-rhythms of the trio, with everyone serving the governing theme. The songs – "African Marketplace", "The Mountain", "The Wedding"– are so complete in themselves, and the steely gaze of their composer, who looked on with an air of prideful ownership throughout, so forbidding, that at first individual solos seemed truncated, as if the horn-men really were scared into submission. But gradually, everything relaxed and the musical identities of the players were able to come through.
As the performance progressed, Cleave Guyton on alto began to exult in the greater freedom his solos were allowed, funky whoops and hollers summoning up the old Ekaya's Carlos Ward and the legendary Kippie Moeketsi, with whom Dollar Brand had played in the Jazz Epistles, South Africa's first modern jazz group. But true to Ibrahim's aims, it was the group itself and the compositions they played that stood out. A version of "The Wedding", performed by the horn-men alone as a wind quartet, almost stopped the show.
The most purely enjoyable experience of an outstanding weekend in Gateshead came immediately after Ekaya, when the local band Gerry Richardson's Big Idea played a late night, club-setting show. Richardson is a Hammond organist, singer and composer who played with Sting's pre-Police group, Last Exit, and his nonet is the most rollicking jazz-soul ensemble imaginable, like a Geordie riposte to Tower of Power.
They're all good, these musicians, but Richardson's organ playing, drummer Paul Smith, and – best of all – an absolutely extraordinary guitarist named Rod Sinclair, were so on-the-money they made you laugh out loud with delight. Like the Sage and this excellent festival, they deserve to be celebrated.