Despite that fact that most of Abdullah Ibrahim’s performance last night was a 50-minute, uninterrupted medley of themes largely in the same key and slow tempo, admiration was the prevailing response over boredom. To the uninitiated, the incessant piece seemed like the piano equivalent of stumbling into Guitar Center and hearing the omnipresent Dude Who Plays Unending Blues Riffs; Ibrahim would play a melody for a minute or two, change gears, play a different one in the same key for four minutes, change gears again and so on. Sound dull? To Ibrahim’s many fans who filled Yoshi’s in San Francisco, it was a celebration of a rich life and an underdog career.
Born in South Africa, Ibrahim’s music is inextricably linked with the political struggles of his homeland (Ibrahim’s composition “Mannenberg” was the first music Nelson Mandela heard in decades). He grew up amidst upheaval, was discovered by Duke Ellington, moved to Europe and lived in exile until returning to his home country after the fall of Apartheid. His latest album, Senzo, is a solo recording almost identical to last night’s concert: a pensive outing and essentially a 1,224-bar blues with so many chord changes that each resolution to the root seemed like a triumph.
Ibrahim said no words to the crowd, only bowing with palms together before sitting down and showing that he has aged in the best possible way. His playing could never go completely New Age or into the realm of post-Bill Evans fluidity. Ocassional four-fingered, octaved arpeggios recalled Jaki Byard, and at times his use of discord rivaled Paul Bley’s Closer. Snippets of “Memories of You” or “Round Midnight” crept into his playing, but for the most part it was all Ibrahim: a man no longer nimble, full-bodied or particularly fast at the keys, but a man playing as breathing proof that emotion and experience trumps technique.