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

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By the time he met Larry Willis at Manhattan Music School in 1960, at the age of 21, Hugh Masakela had already founded the Jazz Epistles, South Africa’s first jazz group, to play township bop, a completely new style of jazz. He’d even been on tour with the musical King Kong. Like most musicians, he had to leave South Africa after the Sharpeville Massacre, but when he met Willis, they were in the most exciting city jazz has ever known. There was a lot of reminiscence interspersing the music, and the set did feel a bit like a greatest hits, with added commentary. Not, when you have hits like this pair’s, that there’s anything wrong with that.

Judging by accounts of earlier performances, the edge may have gone from Masakela’s speed and stamina on the flugelhorn, but the bronzed beauty of his tone, with its arterial, pulsing vibrato, and the throaty power of his control, all remain as strong as ever. The pair played standards, with a couple of African songs (which Masakela has made into standards) representing the decades he spent developing that repertoire. Melody, with quite simple, rhythmical harmonic embellishment, was the core of the performance but - as expected after a 50-year partnership - the pair know each other’s playing so well the result was intimate and lyrical. The most successful songs were perhaps those that suited the pair’s leisurely style: ‘Easy Living’ was a beauty, both players staying behind the beat just enough to differentiate an easy life from a slothful shambles.

Masakela often put the horn down to sing in the manner of late period Louis Armstrong. Masakela knew him in his final decade, the 1960s, and Armstong was clearly a big influence. Masakela’s voice lacked the gravelly depth of Armstrong’s, though it had a kind of weather-beaten melancholy that suited many of the songs. He also added percussion to Willis’ piano passages, massaging his chest with the tambourine and shakers in the most intimate of movements.

Behind the humorous anecdotes and mimicry of everyone who was anyone in 1960s jazz was a deeply felt love and respect for most obviously Willis and his ex-wife, folk singer Miriam Makeba (who died in 2008, having taught him much of his African repertoire). Masakela made music that matters, giving South Africa a voice, and jazz a new civil rights cause in the anti-apartheid movement. His voice may be a mellow one these days, but it will be resounding around the music scene for a long time to come.

The first set was performed by Zena Edwards, a talented young singer and performance poet. The most distinctive performance of her set, a charismatic rendition of Zulu folk song, filled the hall with a haunting yet supple delivery. As the set drew on, though, her generic palette bloated. Poetry followed, and a kind of hip-hop accompanied on the kora, followed by her versions of folk songs by Joni Mitchell and June Tabor. She created the perfect mood of mellow expectation this occasion demanded, but musically it did, in the end, feel a bit too much like a one-woman variety show.

– Matthew Wright