Hugh Masekela & Larry Willis, London Jazz Festival, Royal Festival Hall, Friday 15th November

The ticket for this gig was courtesy of the Write Stuff programme, and I’m posting the review of the main duo set below. Zena Edwards in support (performance poet, soulful singer, musician) was a revelation. The centrepiece of her short set was a commission by PRS as part of the 21 commissions series to celebrate the 21 years of the festival. It was an epic. Spoken, sung and danced. She blends so many elements in her songs and poems; African ancestry via Caribbean heritage and a UK upbringing; an eclectic mix of musical styles all expressed in one smiling vibrant identity, not dodging stories of struggle, love and loss. A kora and a thumb piano made appearances in other songs just for good measure. Marvelous. And then the main act…

An anecdote, about advice proffered in the formative years of a young jazz musician that began “… as Miles said to me..” cemented the sense of this evening as the story of a journey. It’s a journey embracing a friendship forged in the early 60s between Hugh Masekela and foil on piano Larry Willis; a life in music framed by the sounds and politics of Masekela’s native South Africa; a journey marked out by the melodies and songs learned along the way from mentors, friends and lovers; the story of a life that has added it’s own distinct thread to the development of jazz.

The duo set started with the familiar piano riff of Canteloupe Island, shared directly with the pair by Herbie Hancock when they were fellow students at Manhatten School of Music according to Masekela.  A lilting two-chord groove followed underpinning a Miriam Mkeba song growled, sung and whispered by Masekela with Willis adding harmonies.  Standards honoured heroes; Easy Living for Billie Holiday and Clifford Brown, Hoagey Carmichael’s Rocking Chair for Louis Armstrong, Billie’s Bounce for Charlie Parker.  The Stylistics classic You make me feel Brand New, re-invented as an impressionistic jazz ballad and Masekela’s own smash hit township groover Grazing in the Grass completed the journey.

If the repertoire mapped the route, the playing communicated the emotion. The string of anecdotes may have constantly reminded us of just how many years have passed, but they’ve done nothing to diminish Masekela’s authority and power on the flugel horn and trumpet. He can play the most delicate of keening melody lines or stab out a characteristic rhythmic phrase with leaps in intervals that grab the attention.  The first few phrases over Canteloupe floated and dragged lazily against the beat then snap! There was one of those jolting figures and a lovely solo followed full of little lilts interspersed between plenty of boppish phrases. It could only be Hugh Masekela up there. Larry Willis, whose career has embraced free jazz as well as a stint with Blood Sweat and Tears, was at his most compelling gently grooving behind Masekela or wrapping a lush, layered embellishment around a ballad. They both sidled up to ‘You make me feel’ and turned it into a tense beautiful moment.  A visceral feeling of pulse and rhythm was never far away. It didn’t take much to get everyone on their feet for that finale, a sound that Hugh Masekela and his peers more or less invented.

The packed Royal Festival Hall lapped it up.  The pair had been welcomed on to stage by rapturous applause and they departed with it ringing in their ears and plenty of cries for more.

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