Review: Hugh Masekela and Larry Willis

Sally Evans-Darby enjoys an intimate set of duets from Hugh Masekela and Larry Willis, exploring traditional African folk song mixed with American songbook fare

I was one of the lucky few to catch this duo at the intimate venue of St George’s Bristol on 14 November, the concert part of a UK tour which included the London Jazz Festival. Horn player Masekela from Alexandra, South Africa and pianist Willis from Harlem, USA have been playing together since they met in New York 53 years ago, with the perfect symbiosis of their sound and amiable jibes between songs a clear testament to that long friendship.

Before they took the stage, however, support from Tottenham-born Zena Edwards (pictured right) entertained the audience for an absorbing 45 minutes. Describing herself as “a straight-up storyteller”, Edwards used a mixture of poetry, rap and song to explore a broad palette of musical colours, drawing on traditional South African folk songs, singing in Zulu, and playing African instruments such as the kora and the kalimba with prodigious skill. Backed by Jon Speedy on guitar, an extended lullaby played by Edwards on the kora was particularly mesmerising.

Edwards’ entertaining vocal play and African-influenced sound was an ideal prelude to the main event, which drew from similar themes. Masekela and Willis (pictured below left) took to the stage for the second act and bowed to a standing ovation before they played a single note. They then launched into a multi-layered, textured set that saw Masekela switching seamlessly from flugelhorn to cornet to vocals then back to flugelhorn, and accompanying Willis’s extended, lavish piano lines with percussion ranging from cowbell to tambourine. The two players sang soft, haunting harmony refrains that somehow created a sound much larger than only two voices, easily filling the concert hall.

The set was advertised as “leaning heavily on the Great American Songbook”, and the few standards performed by the pair amongst the more traditional African sounds were clearly carefully chosen. Easy Living in particular was a joy, with Masekela’s staccato horn peppering Willis’s laidback piano. Masekela introduced the song by placing it in context: the New York of 1960 where he and Willis had met and the jazz clubs the two of them frequented as students of the Manhattan School of Music (“a dime to get in; 45 cents for a beer”, as Masekela recalled). They had seen and learned from many of the great jazz players of the time, from Duke Ellington to Cannonball Adderley, but Billie Holiday and Clifford Brown were two they were unlucky enough to miss by a few years, with Holiday dying in 1959 and Brown in 1956. Easy Living, then, was a touching tribute to them.

These first-hand recollections of a time that fascinates many jazz fans, myself included, were recounted with great warmth and levity by Masekela, who proved to be a charismatic storyteller. Descriptions of Fats Waller’s womanising led to a touching rendition of Until The Real Thing Comes Along (with Masekela jokingly calling Ain’t Misbehavin’ simply “an outright lie” by Waller). There was also a very tender reading of You Make Me Feel Brand New and a measured, mellow interpretation of Hoagy Carmichael’s Rockin’ Chair, with Masekela singing the lyric and Willis delivering a dream-like, Gershwinesque piano solo.

The final performance was Masekela’s 1968 number 1 hit, Grazing In The Grass, with the audience needing little encouragement to get up on their feet. “If you remember this, you must be old,” Masekela quipped. Raucous applause followed the song’s final note, with the duo quickly persuaded back on stage for an encore. An African-influenced version of Nobody Knows You (When You’re Down And Out) segued neatly into a lullaby to close the evening: When It’s Sleepytime Down South, the lyric sung in hushed tones by Masekela.

Throughout the set, the highly attentive audience maintained their initial reverence for the two players, and it’s easy to see why they garner such respect. Although they have been playing since the 1950s, the pair are more than a relic of a bygone time. They are evidence of jazz’s capacity to constantly renew itself, their fluid riffing and sometimes surprising turns in the music rendering their sound as fresh as it must have been in 1960. Masekela celebrates his 75th birthday next March at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, but hopefully he and Willis will be back in the UK before long for more of the same understated yet enchanting duets.

Photos by Lisa Dawn

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