Hugh Masekela/Larry Willis – EFG London Jazz Festival, 15 November 2013


Is it a contradiction in terms to speak of cool jazz as being warm? Because the performance Hugh Masekela and Larry Willis gave, while imbued with much cool New York sophistication and the relaxed easy tempos of cool jazz, was at the same time steeped in warmth and geniality. When Masekela addressed the audience, his rich and sonorous voice set the tone for the show. At times you might almost have thought that Willis was the star of the show and Maskela his support, such was Masekla’s generosity of praise of him. But the two firm friends, of more than fifty years, collaborated perfectly on stage.

Rather like Miles Davis, Masekela is a multi-faceted artist who continues to evolve through different phases during his career. Once upon a time political themes were central to his performances. His trumpet sound served his message; it shone like a laser light, cutting through hypocrisy, as a surgeon wields a scalpel.

These days though, the political intensity has moved on; its place taken by romance and good humour. Fittingly, his burnished tone was gorgeous and lyrical, sweet even. Willis was perfectly in sync, his playing not characterised by the sometimes staccato and rapid right hand explorations characteristic of many of today’s leading players, but a chord/melody approach that at times had elements of neo-classical stylings pace Brubeck.

Masekela’s vitality is intact, his gestures expansive: the music played was infused with the spirit of youth; lyrical, geared to charm and seduce, underpinned by a grooving rhythmic pulse. This was jazz where both swing rhythms and funk made an appearance; the duo featured a performance of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Cantaloupe Island’. Later on, in keeping with the romantic mood of the evening, there was a rendition of “You Make me Feel Brand New”. But never too pretty to be satisfying. With self-deprecating humour, he introduced a Charlie Parker tune as one of his less technically demanding, suitable for “us limpers”.

The roots to which he harkened back for this performance were not the townships and strife of his childhood, but the Manhattan School of Music where he studied and the nearby New York jazz clubs; a time when performances by the likes of Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, even Louis Armstrong, were accessible to him, and Herbie Hancock was a familiar figure around town.

Just as one might though at times have wished for a sprinkling of the standards-era Miles whilst hearing Miles during his “Bitches Brew” phase, there were moments when I would have enjoyed the intensity and certainties of old. I was also thankful that rock music never made an appearance during the show It would have been nice to leave the Royal Festival Hall with the strains of “Bring back Nelson Mandela, bring him back home to So-we-to”, fresh in my ears. But I can always return to the album that captures that moment in time. The artists have changed with the times, as all artists must, in a slightly unexpected direction.

– Graham Boyd