ABU DHABI // Intimate crowds are usually regarded as a good thing at jazz concerts, but you can overdo it. "How does the audience compare with Ibrahim's usual gigs?" I ask a party of South Africans. There's a rueful laugh. "Embarrassingly small," I'm told. "You know, at home he's really a legend." The memo hasn't gone out: half the people I speak to - the non-South African half - seem to have only the vaguest idea of who Abdullah Ibrahim is; they came on the seductive promise of a balmy November night on the Emirates Palace terrace. If there's a bit of softly billowing jazz in the background, well, so much the better.
And indeed, "softly billowing" is a fair description of Ibrahim's music for portions of the evening. He makes a very urbane sound for a man who learnt part of his trade from Thelonious Monk. Still, you'd be hard-pressed to relegate it to the background: if you have any ear at all for tonal drama, there are moments here to leave you open-mouthed in sheer wonder. Ibrahim cuts a bearish figure, padding on stage in his baggy black pyjamas and sitting at the piano without a word. His six band mates meekly take their places and a shimmering cascade of notes rises from the piano into the night air. A breathy flute line takes off; Dwayne Broadnax's beats out a spacious, meditative rumba. The melody seems to be circling You'll Never Walk Alone, albeit with considerable harmonic ingenuity. And then everything simply blossoms.
The band are superb, in a very discreet way. Howard Johnson and Stafford Hunter, on baritone sax and trombone respectively, periodically swell the lower range with bleakly sonorous minor seventh chords, lending a hieratic note to Ibrahim's suave arpeggios. Cleave Guyton turns in some poised and dexterous soloing on alto sax. There's a rather surprising blast of conch-shell playing, which tickles the crowd.
But the show is unmistakably Ibrahim's: each number winds up in a lyrical, exploratory coda that spills over into the opening bars of the next tune. His solo flights are exquisite: despite a sense of harmonic progression with all the strange inexorability as Bach's, his right-hand melodies still pull off a Monkish off-kilter brightness. Every so often the tone plunges through the floor: the horns roar and schmaltzy cocktail tinkling gives way to a Mingus-like shadow world of boiling neurosis. Yet everything is done with such control: chaos never overwhelms the lyricism.