15 February 2019
Ibrahim Khalil Shihab – Chris Schilder to those of ’60s and ’70s vintage – will grace the stage at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival next month where he will, no doubt, perform material from his new album, Essence of Spring.
New album it may be, but “in essence”, its roots go back 50 years when a young Chris Schilder released his debut album titled, simply, Spring.
The album was notable for the fact that jazz recordings were few and far between those years because the record companies saw bigger sales and more revenue in pop stars.
For whatever reason, the company saw fit to record this gifted pianist with his brother Philly on bass, Gary Kriel on guitar (yes, guitar), Gilbert Matthews on drums and an exciting Winston Mankunku on saxophone and released Spring in 1969.
As much as he was proud of his album, it also left a bitter taste in his mouth. The recording company attributed the title track to Mankunku. The album liner notes also focussed more on Mankunku than it did on the man whose creative works were featured on it.
“I was angry [about that] and called the record company, Gallo Music, but could not find anyone to assist me because it seemed as if no one knew anything and I just didn’t bother to pursue the matter,” Ibrahim said. “Strange thing is that up to a certain point, that is about 10 years ago, I was still receiving royalties from the company for that album and it suddenly stopped after that.”
The new album, released recently, could well be seen as Ibrahim’s attempt to right a perceived wrong. In truth, it owes as much to the persistence of another pianist, Ramon Alexander, who saw in Ibrahim a creative performer who needs to be acknowledged by the younger generation of music lovers.
As Ramon said in an interview, a whole generation of music lovers has grown up knowing only Ibrahim Khalil Shihab. They needed to know of his past contribution and the fact that he was the creative force behind the monster Pacific Express hit, Give A Little Love, on the group’s second album, On Time, released in 1978.
That was 41 years ago. The Millennials weren’t even born then.
So Ramon thought it was time to spread the love. The upshot is 10 tracks featuring Ibrahim Shihab and some of the most exciting young musicians in Cape Town at the moment, like saxophonist Zeke Le Grange and trumpeter Marco Maritz.
It is just another piece in the life journey of this enigmatic yet self-effacing musician who, in his first newspaper interview back in 1968, spelt out his attitude to music: “I like improvising with a difference. The difference is, I like to deviate from the normal chord pattern.”
Well, he certainly has and is different and it has put him a cut above the rest.
Back in the late ’60s, when I first came across the then Chris, he was already playing his own material with more than enough of it to fill an album. Unlike most of the other musicians I dealt with, he came across as pensive and introspective. Didn’t talk much.
But there was no doubting his talent. What else could one expect? He was born a Schilder and musical talent was in his DNA. His brothers – Richard, Tony, Philly, Jacky – were all gifted musicians with Richard and Tony top pianists on the jazz circuit.
At the age of 14, his precocious talents had already scored him a gig at a nightclub in Rondebosch. He was already re-arranging other performers’ works at that age.
By the early ’70s, he was a fixture on the local jazz scene and much sought after at the popular cabaret gigs.
At that stage, Pacific Express was making waves with its jazz-rock-funk-fusion (call it what you will) and Chris was taken with what they were doing. He joined the likes of Issy Ariefdien, Paul Abrahams and Jack Momple to be the creative well for the group.
He penned the material for Express’s debut album, Black Fire, and the follow-up, On Time, which featured Give A Little Love.
Whilst the group enjoyed huge popularity, it wasn’t enough to pay the bills and he found himself heading north to play in the neighbouring states and eventually overseas in the Middle East and China.
Along the way he converted to Islam. He recalls: “About 45 years ago, I had a dream in which I heard the Islamic call to prayer, although I was nowhere near a mosque at the time. On waking up I wondered what it was but I didn’t ponder on it too much. However, I had a few other deep spiritual experiences too and when I met my wife, Raqiba, I felt the need to embrace Islam and decided to change and adopt the name Ibrahim Khalil Shihab.”
Raqiba is the late Zayn Adam’s sister.
He has been back home a few years now doing the odd gig here and there. Now the release of Essence of Spring has seen him back in the spotlight with the younger generation finding out just how good Ibrahim Khalil Shihab is and the oldies twigging that it is the Chris Schilder of yesteryear.
One of the first things I did when I got Essence of Spring was to listen to the 1969 version of Spring and the new one. I liked both. How did Ibrahim compare the two versions?
“The new version is an extension of the first which gives the soloist more room and time to explore the harmony and improvisation open to him and not to be restricted by two chords,” Ibrahim said.
“However, with regard to the first album, I was disappointed and hurt by the attitude of the Johannesburg management and recording company who hurriedly pushed us on to complete. In fact, I was disgusted.
“This new album, Essence of Spring, was a wonderful experience for me, collaborating with those highly talented young jazz musicians. They brought out the best in me and I would like to record another album if the opportunity arises.
Ibrahim isn’t penning any new work at the moment, instead preparing for his next big gig, the Cape Town International Jazz festival at the end of March. When he does, he says, he would prefer to go down the same route as Essence of Spring.
One would expect that a person with Ibrahim’s jazz pedigree would draw inspiration from jazz giants when he sits down to write new tunes. He doesn’t limit himself to that.
“Although I am a jazz pianist essentially, I was also influenced by the beautiful songs written by Burt Bacharach and Tom Bell, including that great jazz-rock outfit Chicago. I love the sound of nature and I’m moved by the hustle and bustle of people around me and therefore speak through my music when inspired.
“I’ve probably written more than 30 songs. I’m not sure how many because I lost a few along the way by not putting it down on paper.”
Ibrahim’s preparedness to embrace things other than pure jazz was further evident when he decided to link up with Express. Normally musicians steeped in pop and funk would “graduate” to jazz music. Ibrahim explains why he went, in part, the other way.
“Firstly, I needed work. Secondly, the idea of performing with a regular band appealed to me and playing with a jazz-rock band was an opportunity for our music to be accepted by the public.
“I recall the early days prior to that when I was scoffed at by people who hated jazz and felt that I wanted to be respected and acknowledged as a competent musician. After all, I had something good to offer them musically and must add, jazz is basically improvisation with a different percussive approach and added bass lines.
“Comparing my stint with Pacific Express, I enjoyed the composing which was a first for me, years after the original Spring and also working with such fine musicians as the late Zayn Adam and the rest of the gang. Right now I am overwhelmed and blown away by the unexpected outcome of the new album, Essence of Spring.
Then there is the small matter of the big hit, Give A Little Love. Many would say it is essentially a pop ballad. How could Chris Schilder, jazz pianist, and Pacific Express, a jazz-funk unit, come up with something so successful, yet so far removed from the style the person and group is associated with?
“Admittedly, I am a hopeless romantic and I grew up appreciating the pop songs by Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers and artists from that era. I wanted to prove to myself that I was capable and gifted enough to write a pop song.
“Initially, I was inspired to write a song for my daughter from my first marriage whom I had not seen for a while, but after a few bars, the song took a turn which turned into a love song which in fact, was a reflection of my relationship with my present wife.
“The song was written with a female vocalist in mind and I gave it to the late Kitty Tshikana to sing but it didn’t suit her style. After playing it to the band members, Zayn stepped in and decided to give it a bash and the rest, as you know, is history.”
In his long career Ibrahim has been associated with a number of progressive groups, such as Express, Love Supreme, Spectrum, Workforce, Aire, among others.
So which group was his favourite? “I enjoyed working with Express. They were musicians of high calibre who knew how to interpret my original music. But as a matter of choice, I must say Workforce was my favourite. I had the opportunity of working with the late Robbie Jansen, Lionel Beukes on bass, Denver Furness on drums, Tich Jean-Pierre on guitar and vocals; they were the ones who inspired me the most.
As for Give A Little Love, Ibrahim acknowledges the special place it has in Cape Town’s musical landscape; that it has been covered by other artists; and is one of the most recognisable tunes around 40 years after it was recorded.
“It certainly is a good feeling and gratifying. Zayn, in his unique way, continued to do justice to the song over the years, as well as all the other artists, and I am truly humbled and grateful to them all.
With Essence of Spring, one is treated to the multi-faceted musical style of Ibrahim. On Give A Little Love, Angel of Love and I Can Hear Music (all from the On Time album) it’s kinda, you know, Cape “jazz” – aimed at the heart and the feet. Ramon Alexander is on keyboards and vocals provided by Deon Manchess, Heinrich Frans, Ruby Truter and Keanu Harker.
Then there’s Bo-Kaap. As they say on the Flats: when a song like Bo-Kaap is on, the “jol ruks”. It’s pure ghoema.
“I have always been fascinated and moved by the vibrant sounds and dancing of the Cape Minstrels and their music is commonly referred to as ghoema. My lineage is German and Khoisan. It’s spiritual and I relate to the voices of the past.”
My preferred listening was Ibrahim’s interpretation of the jazz standards It’s You Or No One, Come Rain Come and My Funny Valentine. It’s more cerebral, the kinda music you sit back in a quiet moment and just let it soothe and wash over you.
Similarly, I loved Jing’an Park, a tune Ibrahim composed when he was playing in China a few years ago and speaks to his readiness to embrace diversity.
“My existing style and improvisation is motivated by Indian, Arabic and Oriental music fused with the styles of American jazz musicians and I am absolutely free in my approach to modal chords, harmony and composition. Jing-an Park is a perfect example of my time spent in Shanghai, China.
Ibrahim is 72 and his health could have been better but he isn’t letting that hold him back. “I have some health issues but I try not to let it affect my performance.”
He has been playing professionally since his teens. To a certain extent, he says, it has been financially rewarding. “I was able to maintain long-term contracts at a number of top hotels locally and internationally, not as a jazz pianist but by playing popular, commercial music for many years.”
The one last thing about Essence of Spring that is worthy of mention: the youngsters who are featured with Ibrahim on this album, augurs well for the future of serious music with its Cape roots.
I was particularly taken with saxophonist le Grange, trumpeter Maritz and guitarist Reza Khoza. And of course Ramon with his regular line-up Chadleigh Gowar and Annemie Nel.
Let’s hope there is more of this collaboration down the track.
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