Live Music: Hugh Masekela and Larry Willis

Hugh Masekela & Larry Willis – St. John the Evangelist, 10.11.13

Tottenham-raised poet/musician Zena Edwards acknowledged how privileged she was to open the show for two jazz legends with her eclectic offerings influenced by rap, Zulu and Irish folk music.

Beginning with an African folk song, her pure, enviable a cappella rang around the tall arches of St John the Evangelist Church. She impressively accompanied poems with African instruments including the kora and kalimba, but cringe-worthy raps read from an iPad left the crowd wishing she would stick to Zulu.

Hugh Masekela and Larry Willis came to the fairy-lit stage, a beautiful reunion of two musicians who have come a long way since early 60s jamming between fellow students of the Manhattan School of Music. The pair have worked together intermittently over the past five decades, and in 2011 they completed ‘Friends’ – a four-disc album of jazz classics that Willis affectionately calls “…the culmination of a 50-year musical and personal brotherhood.”

Their enduring bond shone during this mesmerising set from the album, and we felt as though we were observing an intimate jam session – soulful and intense, yet apparently effortless. Between pieces came many comic anecdotes from a lifetime dedicated to jazz. Masekela recalled musicians who’d influenced him in his youth: in a New York teeming with budding musicians, Miles Davis advised him to bring his own flavour to the music – words that nurtured the evolution of Masekela’s unique South African style.

We discovered that he wasn’t always a singer either. It was none other than Louis Armstrong who pushed him to take the leap; “If I can sing, anyone can!” croaked  Masekela in a comic ‘Satchmo’ take-off.

The crowd of predominantly 40-plus Oxfordians lapped up the way he corrected his own grammar  – making a point of doing so, he said,  because he was “in Ox-ford”.

He dedicated the concert to Louis Armstrong and to his late, great soul sister Miriam Makebe, whom he called “the patron saint of Africa”  because of the decades she spent performing across the globe to raise money for the  anti-Apartheid cause.

Covering timeless classics including “Until The Real Thing Comes Along” was not a difficult feat for this duo, with 74-year-old Masekela’s magical trumpet running up and down the melodies and his voice holding up well. His signature style is marinated in sounds learned while growing up in a township.

Though Willis quietly laughed along while Masekela told his yarns, he didn’t allow himself to be outshone, and the New Yorker’s groovy piano playing stunned those spectators who’d arrived unaware of his particular talents.

Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” was a crowd pleaser, and other standards selected from the album included “Easy Living” and “It’s Sleepy Time Down South”. For those expecting to hear more of Masekela’s own writing, international hit “Grazing In The Grass” triumphantly closed the show and quelled any slight disappointment.