Dr Abdullah IbrahimDr Abdullah Ibrahim’s mainstage concert this year was at the Regent Theatre, which must have seemed like some grand colonial folly to these New York musicians under the leadership of their veteran pianist and composer. It was probably more familiar to our home-grown virtuoso guitarists Slava and Leonard Grigoryan who opened the show with an accomplished and moving selection of classical and contemporary duets.

'We are honoured and surprised to be here,'
said Slava. 'But we do love jazz.' He was right - it was a strange choice of support act for a jazz festival, but nonetheless a treat to watch the brothers perform together with such sympathy and perfect balance of sound. Slava is the more passionate player, bending and rocking to his instrument, working with the dynamics of the music and making the harmonics and final notes of each piece hang in the air. Leonard is the cool practitioner, sitting motionless on his chair while he executes lightning arpeggio runs without blinking. Their playlist contained work by Catalan, US and Brazilian composers, as well as classical pieces. They had arranged piano works for guitar including a drawn out version of Debussy’s Clair de Lune that kept you constantly in suspense.

They chose to play three pieces by the US jazz guitarist Ralph Towner, who uses acoustic guitars rather than electric and started out as a classical musician. These included a burlesque waltz that showcased the tonal and energetic range of these players and a sweet unsung ballad ending in a breathtaking suspended chord. In the familiar Songs from the Forest by Australian composer Nigel Westlake, Slava made great use of harmonics and percussive sounds on the body of the guitar. The Westlake pieces were a showcase for the brothers’ range of techniques. They finished with a swinging Brazilian number in which the two guitar lines interweave strumming, plucking and percussive passages, coming together like magic.

After a long wait in that cold auditorium, Dr Ibrahim, formerly known as Dollar Brand, came onstage to generous applause and bowed low to the audience. He is a veteran pianist, born in Cape Town in 1934, who led the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the 1960s and is famous as a composer of film music. His role here was mainly as a bandleader and his playing at the grand piano was minimalist. He was accompanied by bassist Belden Bullock, drummer George Gray and a horn section. The horns were strung out across the front of the stage, with the bass and drums behind them and Dr Ibrahim off to the side, directing the band under the lid of the grand piano. This rather formal arrangement was not conducive to spontaneous performance and the horns, who were playing mostly arranged parts, were at times a little ragged.

The only players who seemed to find joy in playing were the handsome and engaging Bullock on standup bass and Gray on drums. Their powerhouse performances kept the music alive and their solos were the highlights of the show. The most moving moment was when the horn section left the stage and the understated piano had an intimate moment with the bass and drums. These three have been playing together for years and relaxed into a mellow mood. When the horns were on stage, the piano parts tended to be more like vamping for the soloists.

It would have been good to hear more of Ibrahim’s playing, maybe even a solo. He played most consistently at the end of each piece, forming a bridge to the next. These were lovely musical vignettes, marred by the horn section’s turning over the pages of their music in readiness for the next number. Dr Ibrahim’s music is influenced by European, North African and South African sounds but the music did not demonstrate this variety.

The four horn players relaxed as the evening wore on and became more inspired in their solos. Howard Johnson on baritone sax and James Stewart on tenor sax stood out in their performances. Towards the end we were treated to some of the South African sounds of Dr Ibrahim’s early life: Johnson took up a pennywhistle and Stafford Hunter (trombone) picked up various seashells to play a haunting piece of township jazz. More of that would have been nice.

Melbourne Jazz Festival
Dr Abdullah Ibrahim
with Ekaya, and Slava & Leonard Grigoryan

Venue: Regent Theatre
Date: 1 May 2008
Time: 8pm

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