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


Tonight’s performance ‘Hugh Masekela and Larry Willis: a retrospective’. The big red book. An episode of Desert Island Discs, a story-telling accompanied by a jazz soundtrack condensing fifty years of life and music into an audio montage. The opening soundtrack of Canteloupe Island accompanies the film playing in my head of the fantastical musical wonderland of New York City in the 1960s, narrated by Masekela, as two young lads buzz around town to smokey jazz clubs - embarked on a musical bromance which would bring them to the stage tonight.

Theirs is a story about a journey, one that they took together and it resonates with what Zena Edwards told us in the support act. Slow down she told us, don’t rush at it. She seems wise beyond her years and seems to respect the journey which must be undertaken to achieve any worthwhile endeavour, which perhaps the younger generation doesn’t often appreciate. The pensioner duo respect it too with the privilege of looking back over fifty years. Theirs is an almost knowing nod to Zena – avuncular and stately in their competence – as if to say, yes it does take this long so just enjoy the journey and soak up as much music as you can.

It makes for compelling listening to any young jazz musician because, talented though they may have been even then, it’s comforting to know that they too were once sitting in the audience while all the legends (the names of every single one of which Masekela drops into the conversation to the delight of the audience) played with seemingly unreachable finesse. It’s this willing self-deprecation and Willis’s silent diffidence on the piano which makes the story so believable and the pair so likeable. As they dedicate their show to the souls of the departed greats it is easy to feel like long line of aural jazz tradition is being passed on.

Embracing the African-American tradition tonight evoked the pathos of the bluenote at the same time as the sanguinity of the musical township and it’s a perfect metaphor for the trials and tribulations of life – the not always easy path, the journey we’ll get to the end of in the fullness of time with some patience, effort and a good mate to share the ups and downs of the adventure of learning jazz with.

– Steve Owen