Review: Marsalis & Ibrahim in London

Andy Hamilton reviews Branford Marsalis and Abdullah Ibrahim at the EFG London Jazz Festival, the former bursting with energy, the latter leaving feet unstomped

Branford Marsalis's Quartet is the most exciting group currently performing in jazz, and I try to catch them whenever I can, knowing that what they do will be fresh, spontaneous and amazing. The second gig on Friday night in the QEH was no exception, even though Marsalis began by complaining of jet-lag, and didn't sound relaxed and rested, playing more squeaks than usual. In the present quartet – Joey Calderazzo (piano), Eric Revis (bass) and Evan Sherman (drums) – Sherman has replaced Justin Faulkner, the young replacement for Jeff Watts – someone needs to update Wikipedia on this.

They began with the pianist's exciting composition Jack Baker's Dozen. The second piece, Maestra by Revis, was a rather anodyne, Wayne Shorter-ish ballad with the leader on soprano sax. But Marsalis then charged into Thelonious Monk's Teo, one of the highlights of the quartet's most recent recording Four MFs Playin’ Tunes. Cheek To Cheek was totally subverted, too much so for me. The opening was delightfully ambiguous, and this was an incredibly open performance, but I missed hearing that beautiful theme. Maybe this is the cleverness that might descend into glibness, the lack of friction, by four players for whom this music seems perhaps too effortless. There followed what I noted as "very rapid I Got Rhythm contrafact". The final number was a rather inconsequential Eastern-inflected free improvisation. But for the encore, local hero Julian Joseph came on for Calderazzo, in a joyful version of It Don't Mean A Thing.

This was state-of-the-art jazz that achieved astonishing virtuosity, empathy and responsiveness. But this time, perhaps, it fell a little short of very high expectations, and didn't compare with the set I was privileged to hear at Yoshi’s in San Francisco a couple of years ago, where my jaw dropped early on and stayed on the floor. Calderazzo continues to amaze. As a young pianist, he seemed to me a very glib technician, but now produces totally thematic, spontaneous improvisations. My main concern – a nagging one – is that these guys know how brilliant they are, and give the impression that they don’t have to struggle to achieve their effects. I can't imagine them having the doubts that an artist like Lee Konitz has, for instance. But in other ways, superlatives continue to elude me – an amazing group.

Now for a mystery. Abdullah Ibrahim is a legendary South African pianist and composer, pioneer of township jazz, and – as an exile from apartheid – a commanding figure in his country's musical history. He's now 80, and has over a hundred albums to his credit. He led two groups at the festival: first, a new trio with reeds player Cleave Guyton and Noah Jackson on cello, and then his long-standing septet Ekaya. Listeners were right to expect "foot-stomping gospel passion combined with Ibrahim's sensitive melodic themes", as the programme had it – except that the foot-stomping never happened. The pianist, playing a wonderful Fazioli grand, began solo – the days when Thelonious Monk couldn't be trusted with the best piano are long gone. Simple, haunting themes segued into one another – the only criticism here would be their brevity and the low volume level for a hall the size of the RFH. But soporific tweeness set in with the "new trio", featuring cello and reeds – you could almost call the result easy-listening.

The hope for the second set with Ekaya, a septet with a brass and reeds frontline, was that the presence of a drummer would ignite some signs of the old Ibrahim. Andrae Murchison (trombone), Lance Bryant (tenor saxophone), Marshall McDonald (baritone saxophone) and Will Terrill (drums) joined the trio – but the South African mood music continued. They began with one of the leader's beautifully harmonised arrangements – with no announcements, I couldn't give the title – but the bass was almost inaudible and the drummer performed a subdued easy-listening shuffle. As one critic commented, writing about Ibrahim at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival in July, he no longer gave himself scope to develop his wonderful themes. There was little life or energy. At one time, Ekaya explored the range between mellowness and exuberance, but mellowness has little meaning without the contrast – at least, that's how it came across here.

The third piece, a Monk composition – sorry, memory failed me – featured a theme-statement by piccolo, so the leader was favouring high-end as well as quiet sounds. Bassist Noah Jackson switched back to cello for a familiar Ekaya theme, which remained quiescent. The rather deferential way the soloists took their bows suggested that Ibrahim was well in charge. It's possible that a neglectful sound-team contributed to low volume level, but the air of lassitude was surely the leader's own. (For a contrastingly positive critical appraisal, see Richard Williams at For a long-time fan of Ibrahim's music, this was a depressing performance to witness. Neglecting my critical duties, I left before the end.

Photo by John Watson

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