Abdullah Ibrahim ‘Dream Time’ CD (enja) 5/5

This record comes quite soon (for AI) after ‘The Balance’ but unlike that one this is a solo outing recorded live at his now hometown in Bavaria. I had the privilege of hearing this live at Cadogan Hall the day before I got the review copy of the CD. So this is a review which melds aspects of the recording and the live performance.

Both performances take the same form two movements (I hesitate to call them sets because they are distillations of Ibrahim’s music which take a classical style while remaining jazz – more of this later) both of which are continuous with Ibrahim employing his signature segueing from tune to tune.

This will be familiar to regular listeners to him live or on record. “Quietly flowing, eternal stream of life”, says the record company blurb and for once they have got it spot on. There is a list of tunes but that bald list does not tell the story of what he does. He states themes, moves effortlessly from one to another and back while apparently playing aspects of each at the same time.

Notes and chords hang in the air, waiting for the next statement. It’s like the music holds its breath and then resolves. While playing nothing like Monk, Abdullah does have a Monk-like ability to make the spaces and grace notes speak as loudly or quietly as the notes themselves.

I can’t put it better than Roland Spiegel’s sleeve notes: “Calm, yet exuding a gripping power. In prelude, soft tones gently reveal the initial melodic content. Motifs emerge in echo, making way for a complete melodic statement refined through minute, unexpected details. The gathering stream flows directly into a single, liberating chord. A second melody follows suit, at once melancholic, morphing to bright lyricism, also settling on an open chord. Yet not an end, but a transition…Abdullah Ibrahim is a master of transition.”

In a way, the actual tunes he plays are not as important as the rolling stream of consciousness he creates in each movement. But, of course, the tunes are all important as they are all redolent of his life and of South Africa and that unique corner of the genre that is South African jazz.

But there is more going on. First, the tune the performances are named for is Dream Time with its linked song Did You Hear That Sound. It seems Ibrahim, similar to Aboriginal beliefs, thinks of life as one interconnected system between spirits, ancestors and reality. “If someone tells you in Dream Time that you got to do something you better do it.” (Did You Hear That Sound Dreamtime Improv from Amandla! A revolution in Four Part Harmony.) For me (who is not religious at all) this goes a long way to understanding what Ibrahim is doing with his music – particular in his later years. Far from pandering to calls for him to play “Township”, he is actually distilling through his music his feelings and beliefs, his life, the arc of him leaving South Africa for the USA, time back in SA after the fall of apartheid and time in Europe and the greats of Jazz. Coltrane, Ellington and Lawrence Brown are honoured here. It feels like he has transcended his background while remaining rooted in it. It probably also explains why Mannenberg is rarely on his setlist these days (it’s not here either) – it’s rather too much of a populist anthem.

And something else comes to mind listening to this emotional musical journey, something Abdullah says on the documentary about him from the 80s called Abdullah Ibrahim A Brother With Perfect Timing. He says: “We are sound scientists, we constantly take our music and analyse it, contrary to the idea that in Africa we just take up our saxophones and play. We put in a lot of time, study and analysis.” This also speaks to why he presents his music in the way he does. In effect, he is saying (in Dream Time) “we are African composers” so we had better listen! Of course, he doesn’t actually articulate this but for me, that is the feeling I get from how he plays, what he plays and the atmosphere he creates.

There is one downside of this atmosphere and the quiet listening it demands. Like in a classical concert it’s the coughing. Both on the recording and in the Cadogan Hall concert, it’s there, fortunately not enough to spoil it. I can only assume that the coughing in quiet concerts is psychological – there seems never as much in the bar or elsewhere. Abdullah’s music has a singing quality to it and he can be heard occasionally singing/humming but at no time is it intrusive as Keith Jarrett’s humming is for some people.

I don’t know about the live concert represented on the CD but at the Cadogan Hall, Abdullah did an encore! I think this is a first in all the times I have seen him live – he did seem, without speaking as his style, to be very engaged with the audience and they with him. I had to catch a train back home so missed most of the unexpected encore but I was told afterwards it was short and very intense.

I have a thing where if music gets me I get shivers down my back. I shivered at Cadogan Hall and do so every time I play the CD. Spellbinding, there is no other word for it.

Brian Homer