Abdullah Ibrahim “Mukashi” Trio
Studio Series
Ottawa Jazz Festival
National Arts Centre Studio
Tuesday, June 30, 2015

In Ottawa, South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim communicated strictly through his music. During his trio's 90-minute concert on the last night of the Ottawa Jazz Festival, much was said, but not a word was spoken.

The three musicians – Ibrahim on grand piano, Noah Jackson on cello and double bass, and Cleave Guyton on clarinet, flute, and piccolo – performed an uninterrupted flow of music for the entire concert, without announcing any of the pieces. They did, however, have scores in front of them, and Jackson said afterwards that Ibrahim signaled them musically as to which piece he wanted to play next.

The cumulative effect was majestic and beautiful.

The 300-seat NAC Studio was completely sold out, and the audience was already primed – judging by the vehement initial applause – to enjoy the music. But it was also clear that Ibrahim's trio kept the listeners' attention throughout. No one moved, no one left.

“Mukashi” is Japanese for “Once upon a time”, reflecting the pianist's long-time interest in Japanese culture. But the music the trio played wasn't so much Japanese as simply a distillation of Ibrahim's decades of experience as a musician, performed as chamber jazz.

The combination of piano, reeds/flute, and bass/cello was a perfectly-balanced triangle, each providing a different timbre, each adding a different sonic identity. Each note from each musician was essential, and together they created a warm cocoon of melody inside the Studio.

Ibrahim opened with 15 minutes of solo piano, moving fluently from theme to theme, and sometimes showing the influence of his early mentor, Duke Ellington. This section was very similar to the hour-long solo concert he performed at the Guelph Jazz Festival a few years ago. The series of melodies, played resonantly and deliberately, reached for the heart.

Then Jackson on cello and Guyton on flute joined in, adding to the quiet serenity of the music. They smoothly and calmly followed Ibrahim's lead, filling in spaces with soaring flute and velvety cello lines. Both have also toured extensively with Ibrahim in his Ekaya ensemble, and Guyton appeared on the Mukashi CD.

Throughout the remainder of the show, the musicians would transition so smoothly from the end of one composition to the beginning of the next that the second almost seemed to evolve from the first. At one point Ibrahim played a Monk quote, and it just seemed natural that it would be followed by a bright syncopated melody from Guyton on piccolo and Jackson on double bass. Guyton continued with a lively, extended piccolo solo, set off by clear, steady bass; then the bass became more fluid and the piccolo became more attenuated with bird-like chirps. And then Ibrahim reentered with a bright, chiming melody, and they moved on to a more anthemic piece.

The flute is not often played in jazz, and the piccolo even more rarely, so it was interesting hearing their clear and finely-tuned voices in the music, particularly in duets with Jackson on cello or bass. Guyton also played clarinet in the concert's encore, in a warm, low lines that melded well with deep, full cello and dramatic, deep chords on the piano. I was particularly impressed with this piece: it was an older composition of Ibrahim's called “Serenity”, with a classical feel and many dramatic touches.

Unsurprisingly, the trio were given an immediate standing ovation after an hour of intricate, interwoven music. They then played a joyous 20-minute encore, and the audience was on its feet again.

    – Alayne McGregor

Note: OttawaJazzScene.ca received review access to the Ottawa Jazz Festival but was denied access for our photojournalist, Brett Delmage. Therefore we are unable to publish photos with this review.