Hugh Masekela and Larry Willis with Zena Edwards – EFG London Jazz Festival, 15 November 2013


The great South African flugelhorn player was in his element, taking the audience on a nostalgic tour of 1960s New York: a world of packed jazz clubs and ten cent subway rides out to Harlem or the Bronx for rice and beans and late-night jam sessions. He talked of his time at The Manhattan School of Music, where he met pianist Larry Willis, his friend and collaborator for over 50 years, and of the teachers and mentors who first advised him to blend jazz with the music of his African homeland. “I think Miles put it best of all” Masekela said, his voice dropping into Davis' trademark sandpaper rasp as he repeated the words of wisdom, “if you take some of the shit from back home and mix it with the shit you're learning here...shit!”

It was a mix that was in evidence throughout the duo's set which ranged from standards by Hoagy Carmichael and Fats Waller to 'Bajabula Bonke' an African healing song which displayed Masekela's impressive vocal range, complete with whoops, pitch-bends and guttural bass notes. His flugelhorn playing was as assured and inventive as ever and paid tribute to his influences. Blues inflections and flurries of dancing trills evoked Clifford Brown, cracked melodies were heavy with Billie Holiday heartbreak and repeated staccato motifs rang with the rhythms of Africa.

The duo began with a stately rendition of 'Cantaloupe Island' which saw Larry Willis lean into the keyboard, anchoring Masekela's boiling lines with block chords and heavy fourths. The pianist's fingers seems to trouble him on occasion but the weight of his delivery, the commitment and the good taste, more than made up for that. Chromatic side-steps, redolent of McCoy Tyner, tugged at the edges of Masekela's diatonic motifs and, later in the set, Willis really opened up, unleashing powerful, twisting bebop lines before settling back into the melody of 'Billie's Bounce'.

Best of all were the ballads, 'Easy Living', 'Rocking Chair' and 'When it's Sleepy Time Down South', which bathed in the rich sound of Masekela's voice and of his flugelhorn. Beneath the melody, Willis' chord changes moved liked smoke.

More than a mention should go to the support act, performance poet, multi-instrumentalist and singer Zena Edwards. Her soft-edged vocals and spoken verse floated over kora (a West African harp) and kalimba (thumb-piano) vamps that sounded like rainfall and her delivery was masterful throughout. The opening number of her set, a traditional South African folk song, showcased a wide emotional and dynamic range. It was followed by lilting Celtic melodies, hiphop influenced ballads, and poetry.

At times, Edwards' softly spoken words came out in a rush, tumbling over themselves, as if hurtling towards a precipice. At others, they sparkled with icy staccato or were triumphant, words to be savoured, blending seamlessly into song.

The soaring melodies of the Zulu prayer “There is no Rest Here on Earth” drew the set to a close in a fitting tribute to the headliners and to the fusion of jazz and the traditional music of Africa.

– Thomas Rees