This resolute insistence on quiet can lead to problems: once, at an acoustic solo concert, my neighbour's stomach proved louder than the grand piano, and in this trio setting at Dingwalls in London, notionally a nightclub, the atmosphere was more suited to a church, with only the bleeps of the cash register and the occasional clinking of glasses disturbing the sepulchral calm (even though the downstairs bar was closed throughout each set, something of a tribute in itself). Testing as it was, the silent treatment worked. Gradually, the attention of the audience became so concentrated that it was almost audible itself, and the club seemed to shrink in size until we might have been in Mr Ibrahim's front parlour, listening raptly as he made the piano talk, in whispers. A full house hung on every word for over two hours.
Though he is, for jazz, a star, Ibrahim still isn't as famous a name as he should be. Indeed the name may be part of the problem, as probably more people recognise the catchy moniker he used years ago, Dollar Brand, than the post-Islamic conversion version he trades under nowadays.
Born Adolphus Brand (so you can understand the desire for a change or two) in Cape Town 60 years ago, he was a vital part of the incredible flowering of jazz in South Africa in the 1950s, coming to Europe in 1962, where he was 'discovered' by Duke Ellington in rather the same sense as Columbus discovered America. Moving to New York, he flirted with the avant-garde before gradually re-assembling his mature style from the influences of his native country, the Duke and Thelonious Monk, in more or less equal proportions. For the last 20 years he has produced a stream of wonderful albums for almost as many labels, in the process writing more memorable tunes than any other jazz composer of the period.
Playing two segued sets in which his greatest hits appeared as if in shuffle- play mode, with just enough time to recognise one anthem before it was transformed into another, Ibrahim cast a powerful spell. The church-like ambience was appropriate; he uses hymn- book structures, simple, emotionally compelling lines that carry a heavy historical weight, at times overburdened with the melancholy of his native South Africa. 'The Wedding', 'The Mountain', 'Blues for a Hip King', 'Song for Sathima', 'Anthem for the New Nations', slipped by in a seamless improvisation. The governing quietude has its pay-off too, when, as in 'The Wedding' - a heartachingly beautiful tune - he starts to pummel the keys into a crescendo that gets louder than you think any piano can possibly get. In the wonderful second set he became almost jaunty, singing a sentimental tribute to Cape Town - to which he returned to live recently - a kind of 'I Left My Heart in San Francisco' that could serve the city as its civic theme- tune any day.
The melancholy returned with 'For Coltrane', a delicately sung threnody for the sax player, which meandered into a long instrumental improvisation. Alec Dankworth on double-bass provided the perfect foil, solo-ing with long, arabesque lines that resonated with the emotion that Ibrahim's music always brings brimming up. George Johnson on drums was marvellously subtle, using brushes, hi-hat and rimshots to create a suitably restrained accompaniment to Ibrahim's gentle swing. The South African folk-melodies of 'Mannenberg Revisited' and 'Water from an Ancient Well' completed the set and the encore was a reprise of 'The Wedding', played solo, and even quieter than before. It was one of the great gigs, and as the crowd hustled out afterwards, you could feel the pent-up silence begin to explode in a hundred hurried conversations.
Abdullah Ibrahim plays tonight at Dingwalls, London NW1 (071-267 1999)
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