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Kind of Blue

A Career of Stellar Side Work Grooms Talib Kibwe to Lead

Talib Kibwe

By Chris Barrett | Posted

Saxophonist, flutist, and composer Talib Kibwe, aka T.K. Blue, has five gigs in and around town this weekend. The evenings of Sept. 7 and 8 he'll be leading his quartet at the New Haven Lounge. The afternoon of the 8th, following a "jazz brunch" at the Haven, they'll also perform privately in Annapolis for a jazz-listening group. And the next day, he'll be onstage at the Baltimore Museum of Art with Randy Weston's African Rhythms Quartet, to which he lends his horns and also serves as musical director.

Kibwe's datebook is full, but what impresses most about his schedule is the jovial ease with which he swings between leader and heavyweight hired gun. It's a nonissue, Kibwe says, because it was the side work with jazz notables such as Chico Hamilton, Sam Rivers, and Weston that gave him the skills to lead.

"I'm always in a situation of going back and forth between those two roles," Kibwe says. "It's very comfortable right now. I happened to be very lucky because I was sideman with some really heavy cats. Abdullah Ibrahim was one of the first major cats I played with in my early 20s. It was really heavy."

Kibwe played in quartets led by Ibrahim (the Muslim name of South African pianist Dollar Brand) during the late '70s, when the leader encouraged freebooting improvisation and lots of it. The music Kibwe will be playing at the BMA with Weston, while also steeped in African roots and earmarked with the fierce intensity of improv, is in fact arranged down to the tiniest finger cymbal.

"It's very organic," Kibwe says of Weston's orchestral grasp of ancient sounds. "Randy, he's dealing with ancestral music. It's deeply spiritual. When he plays, I mean, I can see the Sphinx in front of me. I can see the pyramids. His music is the real deal. There's no facade, no gimmicks. It's straight from the heart, from the soul."

It takes a couple listens of Kibwe's ambitious solo projects--last year's Eyes of the Elders or 1999's Another Blue (both on Arkadia Jazz)--to hear what he's taken away from his many mentors. Kibwe has the same penchant for prettiness that marked Ibrahim's records of the '70s and '80s. Though Kibwe blows a bit harder and leans more toward up-tempos, one gets the feeling that he and the late Stan Getz would have had plenty to talk about. When it's called for, his music can show teeth and channel the same restrained ferocity as Pharoah Sanders'. But the tune never suffers or gives way to improvised chaos. Whether it's Kibwe, trumpeters Randy Brecker or Eddie Henderson, or Weston himself (all of whom make appearances on Another Blue) running wild along a jagged edge, somebody always stays behind with something you can more or less hum along to.

Kibwe's compositions, which fill the lion's share of his own recordings, are accomplished and original. But it's on the odd cover that his many facets shine brightest. "Wee," the bebop chestnut from Charlie Parker's heyday, opens Eyes of the Elders. The freight-train rhythm line remains intact, but it's festooned with Brecker's brass and Kibwe's alto in a way that makes it sound more Carnival than Birdland.

Kibwe says his ability to lay challenging sounds up and down an irrepressible melody comes from his accidental backward scholarship. It was John Coltrane and Sanders who got his attention as a young player. From there, Kibwe has been moving progressively back to Bird, thanks to his studies at New York's Saturday-afternoon Jazzmobile program as a young player coming up in the '70s. "[Saxophonist] Jimmy Heath said, 'Man, you've got to check out Bird,'" Kibwe recalls. "Right now I'm checking out Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young."

Like most people with an ear for jazz, the 48-year-old Kibwe has noticed the often-regrettable tendency among young men with horns to pick up where 'Trane left off. Kibwe says he's been tempted himself to give improv energy priority over melody. But with three decades of performing under his belt, he also knows why it can be worthwhile to resist.

"I talk to a lot of people who are not musicians," Kibwe says, "people who just happen to dig what you're doing. This woman I was talking to recently after a concert said she really liked the music, even though she didn't really like jazz. She said, 'I like the melody, and I like it that there's something there I can hold onto.' I felt good about that because that's something I'm always really conscious of."

Baltimore is Kibwe's second home; he divides his time between a rowhouse in Fells Point, which he has owned since 1992, and a home in New Jersey just outside New York City. He says that some of his favorite New York players are from Baltimore, and he's enjoyed exploring the scene that nurtured them. He also says he can see why they're not in Baltimore anymore.

"The talent is here, and I think the audience is here," Kibwe says. "The problem in Baltimore is coming up with the right conception of venues. You don't have a lot of places that play creative music on an international level."

As exceptions, he points to . . . the New Haven Lounge and the BMA. You'll have numerous opportunities to hear Kibwe, playing a little bit of all of the above, in both places this weekend. Consider both acts highly recommended.

Talib Kibwe performs as T.K. Blue at the New Haven Lounge on Sept. 7 and 8; he performs as part of Randy Weston's African Rhythms Quartet as part the Baltimore Chamber Jazz Society's 2001-'02 concert series at the Baltimore Museum of Art on Sept. 9 at 5 p.m.

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