“Jazz is the highest art form and the Symphony Orchestra is stuck in the industrial era, with each musician only knowing how to play his part and not the whole piece” Abdullah Ibrahim said at the weekend. He recounted an incident when he gave a score to a conductor for a performance he was to do with an orchestra. “They did not bother to practice, and I knew exactly what was going to go down” Ibrahim said with a smile. Ibrahim says the day before the performance the conductor asked him if he did not have a CD of the music. The hapless conductor was out of luck and Ibrahim says he had to stop the performance and ask the musicians to try again. It was perhaps telling that Ibrahim warned against the dangers of mistaking information for knowledge.
Ibrahim singles out the ability to improvise as what truly sets jazz musicians apart from their counterparts who play classical music. In his gentle but wise voice he wonders why classical musicians are revered so much if they can only play what is written for them and are unable to improvise. Even as he ponders some of the most enduring contradictions in music, it is clear that Ibrahim remains fascinated by mastery of the simple. Where some musicians bet their careers on virtuosity and playing at impossibly high speeds Ibrahim’s style is often spare. Like Duke Ellington before him, his greatest instrument is the band that he plays with.
His own music is a study in paring down so that each note is heard with a purity that is startling. A key to his practice as a musician, as a composer and a pianist may lie in his life long study of martial arts. Ibrahim reveals that he can spend several years to master one simple movement. Similarly in his playing, he plays the same song over and over again till he discovers to borrow from him, he discovers the 99% that lies hidden beyond the obvious.”
Ibrahim told a story of a young man who found Art Tatum playing and he walked over to him and said he knew all of Tatum’s music and he could play it perfectly. To demonstrate his point, the young man went over to a piano and began playing like the great pianist. But Tatum was oblivious of the young man and he focused on his drink till a friend sitting next to him, said, “Listen, this young man is playing your music”, whereupon Tatum responded, “He knows what I play, not why I play it”.
Read more: Victor Dlamini