Abdullah Ibrahim Trio

HotHouse, February 10

Ethnic Heritage Ensemble

HotHouse, February 16

The trio has been one of the most durable and versatile groupings in jazz. It’s served as a musical home for players ranging from the delicate pianist Bill Evans to the muscular tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins to the cutting-edge alto saxophonist Henry Threadgill. Two recent concerts at HotHouse demonstrated its power and range.

The Abdullah Ibrahim Trio played original material for an hour and a half without interruption. Every few minutes one piece would end and another begin, but these transitions were usually subtle. The experience was like being on a journey in the countryside of Ibrahim’s native South Africa, in which every few miles you noticed some slight shift–the wind picking up, or the temperature rising, or the sun going behind the clouds.

The boundaries between music’s three basic elements–melody, harmony, rhythm–dissolved in the hands of this trio. The drums, usually consigned along with the bass to the “rhythm section,” played as big a part in melody and harmony. In one piece, drummer George Johnson repeated a lilting figure in counterpoint to Ibrahim’s piano line; in another he responded to the long, low tones bowed by bassist Marcus McLaurine with a shimmering flurry on his cymbal; and in another he played phrases that corresponded with Ibrahim’s, adding a harmony tone to each piano note. None of this, though, was at the expense of rhythmic verve, which Johnson displayed throughout. Bassist McLaurine’s playing likewise was not limited to rhythm. His role was established in the concert’s opening moments: Ibrahim began with a lyrical solo passage, and McLaurine responded in kind with sweet, spare lines. And throughout, Ibrahim approached the piano not simply as a lead melody instrument but as a set of 88 tuned drums–sometimes playing simple, repeated phrases that sang, sometimes jabbing at jagged series of notes, and sometimes playing most eloquently by playing nothing at all.

This concert worked like a conversation in which each person participated equally. That rarely happens in a larger group, where there’s typically a front line of horns and a supporting rhythm section of bass and drums. Here everyone was in front without the usual distinctions between lead and accompaniment, foreground and background. Just as the drums accompanied the piano, the piano accompanied the drums. Melodies displayed all the simplicity and suppleness of rhythm, while rhythms displayed all the lightness and shapeliness of melody.

As with conversation, this concert’s success depended on clarity and rapport. In a larger group individual instruments tend to lose some distinction, but the world of the trio is uncluttered. Here each instrument was surrounded by air and was utterly vivid–part of the reason recordings tend to be a poor substitute for hearing such music live. In a recording (particularly in this digital age), clarity and detail are often obtained at the expense of airiness, depth, and warmth. In live performance these qualities can coexist.

But clarity in a conversation means little without rapport, and that may have been this performance’s most compelling quality. Just as a satisfying conversation is as much about listening as talking, this performance was as much about listening as playing. By listening, each of these musicians created spaces for the others. This music ultimately was not about melodic invention, harmonic complexity, or individual virtuosity. It was about three playing as one.

Whereas the 60-year-old Ibrahim came under the spell of American jazz growing up in South Africa, percussionist Kahil El’Zabar, the 41-year-old leader of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble and a longtime member of the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, fell under the influence of African music while coming of age in Chicago. That influence was evident throughout the group’s recent performance, during which El’Zabar played not only the trap drums but also the kalimba (or thumb piano), a series of tuned metal strips attached to a wooden resonator, and a variety of African “earth drums” (played with the hands like congas). Rounding out the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble are trombonist Joseph Bowie, who came to national prominence as the leader of the cutting-edge funk-rock band Defunkt, and tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Edward Wilkerson, who leads two other celebrated AACM groups–8 Bold Souls and Shadow Vignettes.

Like the Ibrahim Trio, the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble eliminated the boundaries between melody, harmony, and rhythm. The center of “Alika Rising,” for example, was a simple refrain that El’Zabar played on the kalimba, which established not only the song’s pulse but also a simple melodic line. Against that line the horns began playing a counterpoint line in unison, advancing the piece’s melodic and rhythmic delicacy. As with the Ibrahim Trio, everyone was accompanying everyone else, playing melody, harmony, and rhythm simultaneously. And like the Ibrahim Trio, this trio displayed a heightened vividness. When Wilkerson soloed on “Alika Rising,” his sound on the tenor saxophone–plaintive, searching, insistent, a sound that threatened to erupt at any moment into a wail, one that would be equally at home in a blues or gospel setting–possessed a bite and depth in these spare surroundings that could not be replicated in a larger, denser setting.

But the trios’ differences were even more striking. Unlike the unanimity of feeling that made the Ibrahim Trio seem like one musical entity playing three instruments, the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble represented a coalition of individualistic voices. Throughout Wilkerson’s searing solo on “Alika Rising,” for example, El’Zabar sang the same sweet refrain on the kalimba. And where the Ibrahim Trio maintained an exquisite balance throughout their performance, the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble were repeatedly on the verge of losing theirs. In “Hang Tuff,” for example, the three musicians began with the horns stating the theme in unison lines and El’Zabar playing repeated patterns on an earth drum, but Bowie’s trombone solo–a mix of busy, chatty lines broken up by ejaculatory bleats and splats–was so strong and persistent that it threatened to topple the song’s structure, though it never did. Over and over again, this trio offered the exhilarating experience of taking you right to the edge of a precipice and then, just in time, turning around and bringing you back.

As these concerts demonstrated, the magic of the jazz trio is that it provides a setting for what novelist and essayist Jay Cantor called “that longed-for beautiful conversation.” Where else but on the jazz stage could one experience a conversation of such sustained attentiveness, empathy, and generosity as that displayed by the members of the Abdullah Ibrahim Trio? Where else could one experience a conversation like the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble’s performance, in which all the participants were given opportunities to go off in their own directions, secure in the knowledge that they’d be welcomed back with an embrace upon their return? Where else could one experience a conversation in which all the usual boundaries simply disappeared?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Marc PoKempner.