By Johnson, Phil
The Independent (London, England)
The lobby of New York's Chelsea Hotel is just as you expect it. Japanese tourists wander to and fro, and there's a mad woman screaming at the reception desk. Abdullah Ibrahim sits among all the mayhem looking preternaturally calm and beatific. The South African pianist and composer - who begins a British tour this week - has lived in the Chelsea for 20 years now, and what started as an exile has ended up becoming home. Forced to flee the country of his birth during the apartheid regime - possession of one his records or tapes was enough to get his fans arrested - Ibrahim returned to South Africa after the release of Nelson Mandela, and though he retains a house in Cape Town where he tries to spend each winter, the bohemian atmosphere of the Chelsea is just too congenial to leave.
It would be difficult to overestimate Abdullah Ibrahim's importance to contemporary jazz, both in South Africa and the world at large. Born Adolphus Brand in Cape Town in 1934, he learned piano first of all from his grandmother, who played hymns in their local church. Later, having taken the nickname of Dollar Brand, he formed South Africa's first modern jazz group, the Jazz Epistles, with Hugh Masekela. After moving to Europe in 1963, his wife, the singer Sathima Bea Benjamin, encouraged Duke Ellington to come and hear him play at a jazz club in Zurich. Ellington subsequently sponsored a recording session and helped his protege move to America in 1965, where he played at the prestigious Newport Jazz Festival. In his first years in New York, Ibrahim (he became a Muslim in 1968) experienced the full flood of avant-garde jazz, working with John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, and also meeting his hero and - apart from Ellington - his most constant influence, the pianist Thelonious Monk. Then, after returning briefly to Africa in 1968, Ibrahim rejected free-form jazz in favour of a renewed enthusiasm for his musical roots, which has led ever since to a canon of rich, unembarrassedly lyrical, compositions that represents one of the most crucial legacies in all of jazz.
The British tour is particularly important because it is the first time Ibrahim has worked with a full band - Ekaya - for some time. As part of the tour, Ibrahim will be giving a lecture and solo performance at London's Gresham College, to celebrate his appointment as Visiting Gresham Professor of Music. …