Hugh Masekela & Larry Willis

Review by Brian Homer

Jazz Standard, New York 

The omens were good for this gig. The afternoon before I was in the guest lounge of my hotel when Hugh Masekela walked in and, as he is one of my heroes, before I knew it I exclaimed “Mr Masekela!” and he immediately gave me a hug.

We only had a brief chat but I asked him how it was going and he said “hard work man! And we have to wait in the kitchen between sets.” That was it but first it reminded me that this was a 76-year-old still hard at it at the jazz coal face, of which more later.

Then it echoed the old track of the Jazz Epistles (that great South African be-bop band Hugh, Abdullah Ibrahim, Kippie Moeketsi, Jonas Gwangwa and others): Scullery Department – so called because the black musicians were not allowed in through the front, only through the kitchen, at gigs.

Hugh Masekela

Hugh Masekela

Well thank goodness Hugh and other great musicians are firmly entering through the front door – in this case of the Jazz Standard – a classic New York jazz dive under the Blue Smoke BBQ on East 27th Street. Although run on the standard NYC jazz and dining lines (only really emulated here by Ronnie’s) its much more relaxed and friendly than most with a very obliging and unpressured attitude from the staff.

I’ve seen Hugh many times before but always in a band setting never before in this more intimate set up with just him on flugelhorn, voice and percussion and Larry Willis on piano.

So it was a voyage of discovery and, as it turns out, a musical journey. They started with an extended piano introduction from Larry Willis on Randy Weston’s Hi-Fly with Hugh then playing some beautiful and measured flugelhorn.

Masekela led the evening with admirable support from Willis but it was Hugh who set the tone and told the stories both musically and in tales from his career and jazz history. The Weston tune was not an immediately obvious choice but on reflection it’s not surprising given his Jamaican parentage and his interest in African influences.

The relaxed and humourous verbal tone was immediately set as Masekela explained that Weston was “8ft tall so his fly was way up there.” He went on to talk about first meeting Larry who was then 17 at the Manhattan School of music where Larry was a voice major – in opera. Masekela himself would have only been 21.

He thought we wanted to play be-bop with Art Blakey but Art told him gruffly “go form your own group African Boy.” And Miles told him too: “Give us some of your shit and mix it with some of this shit – shiiit!” Of course that’s exactly what he has been doing since – expertly mixing classic jazz with his South African roots.

And that’s where they went next with a brilliantly effective and sparse version of his amazing Stimela – about the coal train taking black workers to the mines of South Africa. It’s worth repeating the lyrics to get a flavour of what is strong stuff:

There is a train that comes from Namibia and Malawi

There is a train that comes from Zambia and Zimbabwe, 

There is a train that comes from Angola and Mozambique, 

From Lesotho, from Botswana, from Swaziland, 

From all the hinterlands of Southern and Central Africa. 

This train carries young and old, African men 

Who are conscripted to come and work on contract 

In the golden mineral mines of Johannesburg 

And its surrounding metropoli, 

sixteen hours or more a day, For almost no pay. 

Deep, deep, deep down in the belly of the earth 

When they are digging and drilling that shiny mighty evasive stone, 

Or when they dish that mish mash mush food 

into their iron plates with the iron shank. 

Or when they sit in their stinky, funky, filthy, 

Flea-ridden barracks and hostels. 

They think about the loved ones they may never see again 

Because they might have already been forcibly removed 

From where they last left them 

Or wantonly murdered in the dead of night 

By roving and marauding gangs of no particular origin, 

We are told. 

they think about their lands, their herds 

That were taken away from them 

With a gun, bomb, teargas and the gatling and the cannon. 

And when they hear that Choo-Choo train 

They always curse, and they curse the coal train, 

The coal train that brought them to Johannesburg.

This is a moving song at the best of times but here it sent even more of a shiver down your back with another extended Willis solo and Hugh’s voice with a remarkably hard edge with only the piano underneath it.

Larry Willis

Larry Willis

In this setting Masekela talks eloquently and with great affection about jazz in New York in the 60s (see the You Tube link below for a similar gig with some of the same tales as well as some of the same great music) and about jazz history. So although initially surprising, the next forays into music by Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden, in this context made perfect sense.

Hugh was in fine voice on both tracks – first Waller’s Until the Real Thing Comes Along and then Hoagy Carmichael’s Old Rockin’ Chair as played by Armstrong and Teagarden at an NYC Town Hall concert in the late 1940s. Armstrong was another to give young Hugh advice: “I can hear you can play the horn but can you sing? If I can sing then you can sing!” And its true Masekela can sing and I don’t think I’ve heard him sound better – it was right from the heart. And don’t forget Willis – despite being mainly in a supporting role he played and soloed beautifully often with Hugh on cow bell or other percussion as well as the horn.

Hugh was married to the late Miriam Makeba for sometime and clearly though divorced many years ago still holds her in great regard and talked of the healing songs she handed down one of which they did next. My Zulu is non-existent so I sadly missed the title but it was a dive right back into South African roots. For the first time we heard some lovely deep and dense back up voice from Larry.

And then they finished with what else but Grazing in the Grass Hugh’s hit from 1968 which was a suitably upbeat and African way to finish the evening. A memorable night.

On YouTube:

Hugh Masekela and Larry Willis:

Hugh Masekela Tribute to Miriam Makeba:

Hugh Masekela great version of Stimela (ad at beginning):

Categories: Live review

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1 reply

  1. I saw this wonderful pair in Southampton last year. It was the most exquisitely crafted and beautifully played jazz history lesson one could have possibly hoped for. Great to find it on You Tube too, though if they come back, I’ll gladly pay good money to see them again. Good to see a renewed partnership from my favourite (and I think his best) Masekela album – Home Is Where The Music Is.

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