Cape Town

Exploring sounds of Cape Town, church, and jazz

26 Oct 2015

South African pianist, composer, and bandleader Abdullah Ibrahim kept things at a simmering intensity in a rare Boston concert on Sunday.

The iconic South African pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim, now 81, draws equally from the African Methodist Episcopal Church and township music of his Cape Town boyhood, and American jazz – predominantly Duke Ellington. At his 90-minute-plus World Music/CRASHarts show at Berklee Performance Center Sunday night, with his septet Ekaya, he evoked all of these traditions. But the overall effect of the music – the serene beauty of its stately tempos and recurring hymn tunes – hovered somewhere between a church service and a dream.

Ibrahim began with 15 minutes or so of solo piano, ruminating freely from one tune (“Dreamtime”) to the next (“Barakaat”), hinting at those church hymns and Ellington. The left-hand chords that for some musicians are mere harmonic signposts were for Ibrahim deeply resonant low-register answers and assents to the questing right-hand melodies. Noah Jackson and Cleave Guyton Jr. emerged and joined Ibrahim mid-tune, on bowed cello and flute, respectively. Then the rest of the septet entered, and soon tenor saxophonist Lance Bryant, trombonist Andrae Murchison, and baritone sax Marshall McDonald filled in the rich harmonies.

Ibrahim is justly renowned for his solo piano concerts, but he has played with Ekaya, in one configuration or another, since 1983, and it’s a format in which his music achieves its fullest realization. One might have missed the celebratory dance grooves of some of Ibrahim’s township tunes, but there was no denying the warmth and purity of tone this band conveyed both individually and collectively, especially when McDonald imbued the room with his rounded baritone timbres or Bryant assayed an incisive, blues-licked bebop line.

— Jon Garelick, BOSTON GLOBE correspondant