Hugh Masekela & Larry Willis

Town Hall, Birmingham UK

Jazz musicians have the notion of moving forward hard-wired into them, but occasionally it is good to reflect and reminisce, especially if you have a lot of back story to reflect upon and reminisce about. And that is certainly true of this pair of mature musicians.

The Witbank-born trumpeter and the New York-born pianist met at the Manhattan School of Music in 1960 and have been friends and musical partners off and on ever since. They opened this intimate duo concert with Cantaloupe Island, by another musician who was at the Manhattan School in 1960, Herbie Hancock.

Both have strong personal styles on their instruments, and a lovely relaxed companionship in the music which gave the evening just the right atmosphere. If Masekela does all the talking, it’s because he is the more extrovert musician, but he also has the strongest stories, although this was more about his experiences in the earlier part of his career and therefore outside South Africa.

I’m sure he felt homesick for his South African cultural heritage at times, but this evening was about remembering the joys of being in the crucible of modern jazz during one of its golden ages. Masekela recounted with a true fan’s enthusiasm the number of jazz greats that he could hear on a single evening within the small geographical area of Manhattan Island: they included Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Count Basie.

The trumpeter might have such a specific few very personal and immediately identifiable improvisational tropes that it is easy for him to get repetitive in the exposing situation of a duo, but he still manages to cover a remarkable range of feelings with those few motifs. It is when he puts his trumpet down that he shows a more remarkable degree of improvisational risk taking: Hugh has not one but many voices, from sweet and smooth to rough and gruff, from soft and gentle to loud and declamatory. He also explores in his singing a deeply comic strain, almost of caricature.

The couple’s nod to Billie Holiday and Clifford Brown came in Easy Living, to Charlie Parker in Billie’s Bounce (Masekela modestly explaining it was one of the few tunes Bird had written that more ordinary folks could play) and to New Orleans and Louis Armstrong with Old Rockin’ Chair, and to Fats Waller with Until The Real Thing Comes Along. And the pair showed their search for a good tune knows no stylistic bounds, picking the soul hit You Make Me Feel Brand New as an example.

Zena Edwards provided a wholly appropriate first half with her mixture of songs, poems and chat. If her messages risk getting a little preachy, her ability is certainly not in question.

I was slightly surprised by the meagre turn-out for this concert. If you weren’t there you missed a real treat.

Categories: Live review

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