At the age of 21, Hugh Masekela had a stellar career behind him. He had led South Africa’s first youth jazz orchestra; recorded with the Manhattan Brothers and the Jazz Epistles; played and toured internationally with the musical King Kong. Then, after the Sharpeville massacre, he (and his generation of South African jazz musicians) went into exile. Masekela ended up at the Manhattan School of Music, where he met Larry Willis, who would go on to acclaim as a jazz pianist. “We were scholars of the music,” recalled Masekela. “We’ve been dear friends for 53 years.”
This concert harked back to the jam sessions that Masekela and Willis enjoyed over rice and beans in the Bronx, back in the early 1960s – the pair ran through a songbook’s worth of influences, back to Fats Waller, to Louis Armstrong and also including some of the enviable array of stars they went to watch in Harlem and Greenwich Village. It was also, perhaps, a glimpse of an alternative history for Masekela, in which he remained in America and became a respected elder statesman rather than returning to his home continent in the 1970s, immersing himself in the music of west and central Africa and later recording in Botswana on the frontlines of the anti-Apartheid struggle.
Willis launched into the familiar opening pattern of Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island”, his heel clicking the rhythm on the polished floor. Masekela began with an improvisation around Freddie Hubbard’s original cornet line, all embellishment and no melody, and then, as the piano shifted key, leant down hard into the tune. He used his characteristic technique, fast repeated staccato notes nagging away in the same cycle several times before breaking out and upwards into an exclamation; Willis would glance at him out of the corner of his eye, testing whether to keep the piano on a rolling boil or to take his own solo while Masekela reinforced the beat on tambourine.
Amid the standards were a version of “Easy Living” with Masekela’s flugelhorn mimicking Billie Holiday’s cracked singing; a slow reading of “Until the Real Thing Comes Along”, with stately rolling piano; and a conversational run through Louis Armstrong’s “Rockin’ Chair”, which Masekela remembered hearing as a four-year-old in an East Rand township.
But the African roots were strong. Miles Davis had given him career advice, which Masekela reproduced in Davis’s legendary intimidating rasp: “If you take some of that shit from home, and put it together with the shit from here … shit!” The duo played a couple of songs inspired by Miriam Makeba, who had been their companion during those jam sessions and for a while Masekela’s wife. On “Abongoma” Masekela clattered a cowbell and channelled the chanting of a traditional healer, Willis breathing responses into his own microphone. During “Bajabula Bonke” Masekela brandished his trumpet like an assegai, Willis marking time with a slow jive, waiting for his partner to unleash torrential flutters of notes. They finished with Masekela’s biggest hit, “Grazing in the Grass”, Willis playing a marabi backing underneath the familiar tune. A false climax had the audience trembling on the edge of applause before Masekela unleashed a final virtuoso coda.
The encore, though, returned to America, and specifically to the cool jazz of the West Coast, with Masekela channelling Chris Connor’s desolate singing on “A Cottage for Sale”. His African career remains unsurpassable; but clearly, the American road-not-taken would have been an equal success.