Abdullah Ibrahim and Carlos Ward, Live at Sweet Basil, 1983
Abdullah Ibrahim threads through decades of jazz listening, a towering presence who keeps reappearing. His late style sometimes seems to bear few traces of the man in his pomp, though recent recordings are still lovely, in a meditative sort of way. But I return constantly to the early work, to the first editions of Ekaya, to trios and quartets. And to this one, a duo that drew the best, perhaps the best ever, from both performers.
Carlos Ward’s rep shines less brightly, but he had a knack of turning up in the most interesting places in a career of wonderful work – with Coltrane (reportedly), Cherry, Ibrahim, Blackwell, Cecil Taylor, the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra and, just a few times, as a leader. Of all the pianist’s collaborators, he seems to me the ideal partner. There are excellent quartet recordings, and he shines in the first ones from Ekaya, but this duet had a focus and intensity that were not usually matched in the other formations they shared. Their work avoided the longeurs that often marked Ibrahim’s live sets – I just replayed live at Montreux, from 1979, for example, which is great and has some fine contributions from Ward as well as Craig Harris on trombone, but also some quite plodding bits when nothing much is happening. It’s easy to be patient in these moments when you are there, but they don’t enhance a recording.
So it’s a recording with the duo – Ward as brilliant on flute as he is on alto and inhabiting Ibrahim’s themes as if Panama is a region of South Africa – I post here. I have recollections of Ibrahim solo sets from the 1980s that were as close to religjous experiences as you are going to get in a secular space. But the duo, caught twice in the UK, at Bracknell and in London, brought an extra dimension, and a level of excitement that complemented the more devotional feel of the solo work.
And that excitement was captured for posterity. This record is one that almost got away. It appeared on Ibrahim’s own, short-lived label: I got hold of a copy on a trip to New York and never saw it again. It’s not been reissued, or made Spotify, but has surfaced on YouTube.
Well, half of it has. The posting above has the whole of side 2. Like the pianist’s solo sets, the numbers run onto one another on a continuous stream. All the tunes are Ibrahim favourites, beginning here with Anthem for a New Nation. There follows a mini solo recital, five themes in seven minutes, with Ward on the sidelines until a brief glimpse of his flute at the close. Otherwise, it’s a nice taste of every other Ibrahim solo set you’ve ever heard. Then – the big finish – the two come together for a storming Soweto, a real anthem, Ward switching back to alto. The pianist is now the accompanist, and what an accompanist, pounding out the rhythm, while Ward takes flight. He may have matched this solo on other dates, but surely never bettered it. It’s a genuinely cathartic moment, and ends the record and, one may guess, the set in a way that is unusually satisfying.
There are other great examples of Ward’s playing, especially with Don Cherry, but this is a favourite. (He dropped out of sight some years back, but I hope he was around somewhere last year to celebrate his 80th birthday.) And there must be more from this duo. Apart from the still elusive side one of this LP, it came with the tantalising designation “volume 1”, and a note the the recording of the second set at Sweet Basil lasted over an hour and a half, with the rest to appear on subsequent releases. Somewhere, too, I hope those tapes are still preserved…
Meanwhile, here’s the only other capture of the duo in action I know, with video this time, from Poland a year later.
Why the No 23? This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.
There’s a cumulative playlist of all the ones that can be found on Spotify (with a quartet track featuring Ibrahim and Ward)