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

Hugh Masekela and Larry Willis: Lullaby for a Sleepless City – EFG London Jazz Festival 15 November 2013

Taking this journey back from Krasnodar I thought to myself that London's going to be my Mecca for it is the only city on Earth you can dream of going to practice the Language of Queen. Imagine my amazement mixed with bewilderment when upon landing I realized that the Capital of English speak all the languages you can think of starting from Chinese and Russian to world languages of Art and Music apart (if not except) from their native one.

Yesterday's evening, I experienced a whole-new cascade of emotions by getting introduced to people who master the discourse of Music practicing it to the utmost level and making it comprehensible to the multicultural city. Being invited to the show of EFG LJF by Zenna Edwards and Hugh Masekela and Larry Willis I found myself forgetting about the "language gap" simply diving into an absolute cosmopolitanism.

The lady who came on stage last night, an African-British bright rising star Zenna Edwards proved the point of the world facing total convergence of both natural and artificial languages, of both global and local mentalities into one common way of interaction. Her rich rhythmical a capella voice backed by traditional African instruments mbira, kalimba and some guitar expressed her inspiration by ever-alert world where the very notion of what we used to call jazz evolved into a mix of ever-young & complete ethnic music with the ever-experienced urban art.

The idea of introducing traditional African tunes and tales into performances gains its foothold among African-born musicians more and more as the world accepts their endeavor to preserve the legacy by the originals, people being at the cradle of today's jazz.

Second set of the night by incredible Hugh Masekela and Larry Willis removed all doubts if any, about Music being ever-revitalizing elixir of life for those who tried it once. The two senior musicians in their late 70s recalling hanging out with Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, or Miles Davis in the prime of their lives, gave an astonishing performance leaving many young vigorous jazz players far behind. You can only envy that vital force cast upon them by passion to share the Music, to tell the story and get heard, which they were lucky enough to make the essence of their lives.

Their music was lullaby to the restless city, to all who came to get told the story of life and listen to the universal language: jazz spoken masterfully by its authors.

– Ilya Fedorov

Hugh Masekela & Larry Willis, London Jazz Festival, Royal Festival Hall, Friday 15 November – EFG London Jazz Festival

An anecdote, about advice proffered in the formative years of a young jazz musician that began “… as Miles said to me..” cemented the sense of this evening as the story of a journey. It’s a journey embracing a friendship forged in the early 60s between Hugh Masekela and foil on piano Larry Willis; a life in music framed by the sounds and politics of Masekela’s native South Africa; a journey marked out by the melodies and songs learned along the way from mentors, friends and lovers; the story of a life that has added it’s own distinct thread to the development of jazz.

The duo set started with the familiar piano riff of Canteloupe Island, shared directly with the pair by Herbie Hancock when they were fellow students at Manhatten School of Music according to Masekela. A lilting two-chord groove followed underpinning a Miriam Mkeba song growled, sung and whispered by Masekela with Willis adding harmonies. Standards honoured heroes; Easy Living for Billie Holiday and Clifford Brown, Hoagey Carmichael’s Rocking Chair for Louis Armstrong, Billie’s Bounce for Charlie Parker. The Stylistics classic You make me feel Brand New, re-invented as an impressionistic jazz ballad and Masekela’s own smash hit township groover Grazing in the Grass completed the journey.

If the repertoire mapped the route, the playing communicated the emotion. The string of anecdotes may have constantly reminded us of just how many years have passed, but they’ve done nothing to diminish Masekela’s authority and power on the flugel horn and trumpet. He can play the most delicate of keening melody lines or stab out a characteristic rhythmic phrase with leaps in intervals that grab the attention. The first few phrases over Canteloupe floated and dragged lazily against the beat then snap! There was one of those jolting figures and a lovely solo followed full of little lilts interspersed between plenty of boppish phrases. It could only be Hugh Masekela up there. Larry Willis, whose career has embraced free jazz as well as a stint with Blood Sweat and Tears, was at his most compelling gently grooving behind Masekela or wrapping a lush, layered embellishment around a ballad. They both sidled up to ‘You make me feel’ and turned it into a tense beautiful moment. A visceral feeling of pulse and rhythm was never far away. It didn’t take much to get everyone on their feet for that finale, a sound that Hugh Masekela and his peers more or less invented.

The packed Royal Festival Hall lapped it up. The pair had been welcomed on to stage by rapturous applause and they departed with it ringing in their ears and plenty of cries for more.

– Mike Collins

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

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

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