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

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

Another man's song: Christine Tobin – A Thousand Kisses Deep plus Georgia Mancio at the Purcell Room – 19 November 2013, EFG London Jazz Festival

There is a lot of soul in Leonard Cohen's music. Christine Tobin has covered a few of his songs in the past, now she has recorded a whole album of them, called A Thousand Kisses Deep. It is set to be released in spring 2014, and she is now touring with the programme for the next few months.

The theme of covering other, non jazz musicians' work is introduced into the evening by Georgia Mancio, the support act, who surprised with a jazzy version of Bowie's Life on Mars with Seú George's Portuguese lyrics amid a solid performance of jazz standards. Her voice jumps up and down between deep and high notes with ease and joy. Her trio was completed by flute (Gareth Lockrane) and base (Geoff Gascoyne on electric and double base), no drums, no guitar, an unusual picture of three musicians all standing up next to each other. Gareth Lockrane gives an outstanding flute performance, which includes a base flute.

Cohen's songs are so multi-layered and full of allusions they offer myriads of possibilities of reinterpretation. Christine Tobin focuses on the soul, embraces it with her voluminous voice. Her band add something to the music that isn't there in the originals: subtlety. Cohen's lyrics and voice are full of subtleties, but his arrangements aren't. Christine Tobin's band make songs like Take This Waltz and Everybody Knows come across light-footed and lively, just as serious and eerie but lacking the heaviness of the originals. Dave Whitman introduces the dark and desperate Story of Isaac with a stunning double base solo and continues a captivating dialogue with Tobin's voice. Impressive also Adriano Adewale's performance on percussions, subtle and precise, but very creative and with an air of lightness that supports the music but also adds a welcome light-heartedness to it. It is his third performance of the day, but there are no noticeable traces of exhaustion to be heard. The band is completed by Huw Warren, one of her earliest collaborators, on accordion and Phil Robson on guitar. They complement her strong, soft voice and are always in perfect communication with her.

From an upbeat Suzanne with Latin rhythms to a pensive and jazzy Famous Blue Raincoat, Tobin transforms the songs and makes them her own, while still conveying the aura of their creator. She covers the whole spectrum of Leonard Cohen's music, from the early sixties to the 21st century, and strips them of any corniness that Cohen's sometime use of violins, choirs and orchestral scores has brought to be associated with the songs. With her, the songs are dry, honest and open, and she conveys the intricately crafted poetry of the lyrics in her own way. A whole set dedicated to one songwriter could have been monotonous, but not with a songwriter as versatile as Leonard Cohen and certainly not with a singer as enthralling as Christine Tobin.

– Miranda Schiller

Arild Andersen Quintet and Reisjeger/Fraanje/Sylla by Thomas Rees – QEH, EFG London Jazz Festival 2013

Great jazz demands virtuosity from its practitioners but virtuosity alone is never enough. Communication and sensitivity are key, and it was this that came to the fore last night, on the intimate stage of the Southbank Centre's Queen Elizabeth Hall. Performances by the star-studded Arild Andersen Quintet and by a lesser-known Dutch trio, featuring Harmen Fraanje on piano, Mola Sylla on vocals and percussion, and Ernst Reisjeger on cello, were both characterised by playful, beguiling interaction.

The trio's first half set was a contemplative one. They depend on what Reisjeger calls “sensitive cooperation” and describe their performances as “readings” of original material, choosing to rehearse “options” but to not to predetermine the form or structure of a piece. For the most part, the effect was enchanting. Fraanje provided modal vamps and swirling soundscapes, rivers of sound accompanied by occasional vocals, so sensitive they they were almost indistinguishable from his piano lines. Sylla responded, his voice strident and impassioned, steeped in the sound world of his native Senegal. His melodies were tinged with melancholy and what sounded, at times, like fear. In robes of crimson and gold, he provided a visual dimension to the performance too, emerging from the audience in the opening number, his arms held aloft, and striding across the stage twirling bird-callers and scaly, West-African rattles.

Reisjeger was no less theatrical, drumming upon the body of his cello, sliding wetted fingers over the strings and strumming chords while holding the instrument across his knee, like an oversized guitar. His delicate arco lines glistened with distorted harmonics: fragile and haunting like the sound of old gate hinges swinging in the breeze. There were jagged pizzicato melodies too and whispers from the world of baroque classical music in the form of elegant ground-bass. The strongest and most varied of the three musicians, it was Reisjeger who maintained the interest when the mellow set began to drift towards the monochrome, the other players responding to his changes of texture and direction. At times, these subtle shifts were arresting. Trance-like grooves and lilting accompaniments belied just how alert the musicians were, listening and reacting without delay or a hint of hesitation, coalescing on stops, catches and harmonised melodies.

The Andersen Quintet offered engagement and interplay of still greater quality, along with a more varied palet of colours and intensities. The veteran Norwegian bassist, described the pan-European quintet, which featured Poland's Marcin Wasilewski on piano, Frenchman Patrice Heral on Drums, Swiss trumpeter Matthieu Michel on flugelhorn and Scotland's own Tommy Smith on tenor saxophone, as his “dream group” and it was clear from his playing that he meant it.

The set was a whirlwind of tempo changes and metric modulations. Wistful melodies raced away into snatches of surging swing with the rhythm section pushing hard, urging the group on. Gentle ballads, like “Lucia”, and passages of introspection drew the audience in. They sounded strange and beautiful with simple tunes and chord changes that evoked songbook classics while remaining contemporary and free. It was almost as if you had heard them before, as if Andersen were rescuing old melodies from the swirling fog of your imperfect memory.

The bassist's arco lines radiated warmth, like the soft red curtains and heavy lamps that adorned the stage, but his playing could be aggressive too. His angular, off-kilter duets with Heral, with whom he has worked in numerous different settings over the past ten years, were a particular highlight. The pair were all smiles as they second-guessed and wrong-footed one another, trading and reinventing ideas. They brought the best out of Wasilewski who stamped his foot and hunched his shoulders, spinning out lines and snatching his hand away from the keyboard as if he were afraid it might become entangled in the threadlike melodies. Michel and Smith were imperious throughout. The scotsman contributed muscular solos on up- tempo numbers like “The Fox” with altissimo holds and twisting lines that were heartfelt, almost Coltrane-like. His gentle introduction to the last ballad of the set, played on wooden flute, recalled the airy folk music of the Andes and was a further highlight. It blended perfectly with the enviable sound of Michel's flugelhorn which came soaring out of the texture to take up the melody.

In a final change of pace, the quintet's closing number saw Heral vocalising the rhythms of his kit, distorting and layering them with a loop pedal and playing over the top, thrashing at tomtoms and cymbals. After a nod from Andersen, the tune's signature riff returned, the voices of the horns filling the auditorium and adding to Heral's shouts: a climatic whirlwind of sound and a final hymn to cooperation and interplay.

– Thomas Rees

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

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

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