Essence of Spring: Ibrahim Khalil Shihab plays inside and outside all the boxes


Jazz musicians are a gloriously democratic mob – but some jazz audiences (Gauteng, I’m looking at you here) and self-appointed critics can be less so. It ought to be enough that the music is rich with improvisation, and infused with African groove or American swing – or very often both.

But no. Large swathes of jazz from the Western Cape in particular risk getting confined in the boxes of pop or dance music when they swing or groove too much, or feature a vocalist out front singing about “lurve”.

The boxes shouldn’t matter, but since they impact coverage, airplay and marketing decisions, they do: that’s how musicians eat.

Ironically, those same Gautengers who act all sniffy when they hit the Cape Town Jazz Festival and encounter improvised music shaped for “jazzing”, still offer respect to Abdullah Ibrahim’s Manenberg – the most perfect piece of bump jive ever written.

But it’s musicians of Ibrahim’s generation, born before South African university music schools opened their doors to Black jazz, who pioneered what the broad church of jazz is really all about. One we don’t hear half enough about is pianist Ibrahim Khalil Shihab, now in his 70s but still making new music.

Shihab’s latest album, Essence of Spring, launches at month-end (available via ) and provides a magnificent lesson in why the genre wars serve nobody except profit-hungry marketers.

Club Normandy, Mankunku and Pacific Express

Seventies strut: Pacific Express

Shihab’s mother composed and played piano in church. At 14, as Chris Schilder, he was featuring at the legendary Club Normandy in Rondebosch; by 15, he had his own group, staffed by his brothers who included the equally legendary pianist Anthony (Tony) Schilder. In 1969, in a new quartet, he released the album Spring, featuring a fiery young saxophonist called Winston Mankunku Ngozi ( ). With Pacific Express during the ‘70s he crafted a series of powerful pop hits, including the prizewinning 1978 Give a Little Love, with vocals by Zayn Adam (here’s the original from scratchy Springbok Radio ). The apartheid SABC erased the video clip of the smash-hit when they realised the band were not Americans, but both “local” and “coloured”.

In 1975 the pianist embraced Islam, adopting the name Ibrahim Khalil Shihab. He played the hotel circuit from Mmabatho, to the Gulf, to Shanghai and back, always composing, constantly exploring and stretching his musical imagination.

Back home, in 1999, he recorded an astounding three-track, 50-minute solo piano outing for Jack van Poll’s October Jazz series ( ). And then he carried on playing, teaching – most recently at the Capetown Music Institute – and writing.

Which brings us to today, when his first album as leader since Spring is released.

It’s been a long half-century.

Essence of Spring reflects on that whole history, opening with a reprise of the 1969 title track. There are covers of three Pacific Express tunes (I Hear Music, Angel of Love and, of course, Give a Little Love), Shihab originals, and some covers of the standards.

Co-producer Ramon Alexander

Co-Producer and fellow pianist Ramon Alexander has chosen to re-arrange (and carry the piano parts on) the three Pacifics tracks: a decision that works out well, since what matters about those is not so much Shihab’s playing as his acute gift for composition. To understand their success, contemporary listeners need to hear them as tunes, not solo vehicles. Alexander’s arrangements don’t repress either their unashamed poppishness (they’re as catchy today as they were back then) or the fact that they are also genuinely interesting for musicians to play; demonstrated by solo work from a predominantly young ensemble including reedman Zeke le Grange, trumpeter Marco Maritz and, on Give.., the flamboyant guitar of Bradley Prince, which perfectly catches and updates that strutting ‘70s vibe.

But it’s the pianism of Shihab I’m here for, and the album never disappoints in that respect.

Tai chi, Trane and the Bo-Kaap

Shihab doesn’t rest on Spring’s Mankunku laurels: this version is fresh, reflecting who he is today, rather than who he was then. The fast dash of Cancerian Moon and the contemplative In Persuance, though, are both tunes that Ngozi, had he lived, would have relished playing: the former swings like the clappers; the latter has that searching, soaring Trane vibe, which le Grange exploits powerfully.

A partnership that ought to go further emerges on In Persuance and Jing’an Park (inspired by the elderly tai chi devotees Shihab observed practising in Shanghai). Guitarist Reza Khota creates solos that are absolutely of today – and so are Shihab’s responses; not just his ideas about where the music should go but the masterful technique that allows him to express them. Pianist and guitarist find so much breathtaking and beautiful common ground that I’d love to hear a duo set just from them.

There’s also a short, brisk piece of classic Cape Jazz, Bo-Kaap, complete with goema rhythms and South Asian chord progressions. This mercurial variety of pace and vibe demands a great deal from the ensemble’s rhythm players, and both the veteran bassist Lionel Beukes and the much younger drummer Annemie Nel (and on one track Pacifics’ veteran Jack Momple) are more than up to the challenge, offering finely textured empathetic support, completely in the mood of each distinctive Shihab original.

at piano
Shihab at CTIJF 2013

And then there are the ‘covers’. If you ever wondered why standards exist, or why jazz players improvise on them, Shihab’s musical imagination explains it all perfectly. His playing pulled me so intensely into the unsuspected landscapes of tunes I thought I knew that I snarled in frustration when the piano medley ended. No problem: Shihab reprises the final tune in that, My Funny Valentine, for seven minutes of final track, with a magisterial contribution from Beukes – the first time we hear the bassist really stretch out.

Genre labels and boxes are the creations of a capitalist music industry that loves blinkered listeners. Shihab just writes and plays very good music indeed, and none of the divisions matter. I wish there had been space for his composition A Glimpse of Tomorrow, which opened his 2013 Cape Town Jazz Festival set…but maybe that’s the title track of the next album…Echoes of Spring launches at the Academia Theatre in Landsdowne on November 23/24 at 7:45pm, with bookings from Quicket. If you’re in the Cape, go to the performance. If not, buy the album. It’s historic in the best sense of that word.

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