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


Whenever there was silence, where anxiety, criticism and doubt are bred, the air was instead saturated with respect. They were treated like royalty before even performing. A slow swaying entrance, Masekela in neat full black, Willis towering in Grey. With ease, Willis’ piano keys cut 2,500 claps to silence. The audience were under a spell – the simplicity of the stage, lighting, and duo itself, amplified the aura around these age-old friends from legendary to boundless.

Having played together since 1960, their harmony as musicians was immediately evident. The seamless transferal of energy between their instruments, Masekela switching from spurts of lead trumpet to rhythmic percussion, whilst Willis’ piano rumbles emerge and burst into voice.

There is dialectic in this couple that is naturally strong. Aside from Willis being almost double the size of Masekela, speech and silence, voice and rhythm, texture and unvaried, attitude and tranquillity permeate all of their work. However, the true power of this duo can be seen when control of their instruments renders these traits transposable to one another, and the two begin to oscillate in opposition, rising and rising like, as Masekela said, the spirit of Louis Armstrong does, to which he dedicated their penultimate song.

He did all the talking, whilst Larry played to his jokes, often at his own expense. Masekela wove his introductions with history, some humorous, some sincere. He emphasised all the great names in jazz from 60s New York, speaking nostalgically, and in a way that this particular Royal Festival would have want to hear it. Some humorous, some sincere, he ranged from how he met Larry through to Miriam Markeba’s testifying against apartheid at the United Nations. His turn of phrase demonstrated, in accordance with the performance, a striking knowledge of silence as well as sound. With the perfect amount of restraint, Masekela held the audience in the palm of his hand. Just like the sound of his crisp trumpet, the subtle inflections rang with infectious beauty and truth, playing in constant dialectic off that aura-filled, respectful silence.

– Adam Robinson