Shhh, so quiet.
What’s this? A man came on to the stage, touched the piano and left. Moments later, that touch completed a smile of recognition as we in the audience having momentarily sat in darkness saw what he did, the surprise in his eyes, and gently laughed at the ritual.
Abdullah Ibrahim, pictured above, then came on and approached the Fazioli, its castors gleaming. Ibrahim now in his early-eighties, dressed in black, his clothes loose and comfortable-looking, his hair grey, mien dignified, began to play. A hymn of concentration, the sheet music in front of him a little irrelevant (later some of it even fell on to the floor to no obvious disruption) but this was pure improvisation and an assembling once more of a lifetime of music with a few cues from the few staves there happened to be on the paper representing the roux, the essence, Ibrahim’s Ellingtonian body of work and artistry more to the point in his head and in his heart.
The themes were fragmentary, musical sentences begun, sometimes left dangling in a creative ellipsis... and the first hugely long uninterrupted section lasting anything up to an hour full of hints and while not exactly a medley more a circling of the object... elite noodling perhaps if you were being uncharitable, otherwise that bravest of things: naked thought as a musician in front of a few thousand people as witnesses with no safety net available, expressing himself and somehow holding a hall taut in his hands.
Ibrahim didn’t speak at all and none of the tunes were announced. One theme, a thing of beauty, ‘Blue Bolero’, returned a few times within the first improvisation, the repetition a charm and besides this there were echoes of Monk particularly. Later in the second section ‘The Wedding’ was given considered space, its processional quality a mirror and a light in the sky. Ibrahim has a language at his disposal and is the keeper of his own dictionary. Soft and very gentle, the audience had to listen hard and did, only a few coughs getting in the way: Keith Jarrett would have been horrified!
Later by generational contrast over at the Old Street station, Empirical, below, were completing their six-day pop-up lounge residency, a young crowd of clubbers on their way out for the evening and first-timers cramming in to the storefront make believe jazz club to hear them. They reprised the gorgeous ‘Lethe’ from earlier in the week ramping it up with opener ‘Initiate the Initiations’ and then the sparkling syncopated ‘Card Clash’ all from their new album Connection extending their first set as more clubbers herded in to crowd by the door. I couldn’t help but think of the Jagger/Richards lyric as the residency approached its conclusion: ‘This could be the last time/Maybe the last time/I don’t know/Oh no. Oh no’ but oh yes the four-piece were firing on all cylinders and leap back into action again on Monday night. Stephen Graham