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Hugh Masekela and Larry Willis: Phoenix, AZ, June 18, 2013

Patricia Myers By

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Hugh Masekela and Larry Willis
Musical Instrument Museum
Phoenix, AZ
June 18, 2013

A duo concert by flugelhorn master Hugh Masekela and pianist Larry Willis was billed as a salute to The Great American Songbook, but the performance offered as much storytelling as music. Masekela's endearing persona emerged as he related jazz history and his own life path, eliciting gentle laughter from the audience, many of whom may have known of him only from his 1960s pop-jazz hits "Up, Up and Away" and "Grazing in the Grass."

The 74-year-old South African and the 70-year-old American had met as students at the Manhattan School of Music in the early 1960s. Masekela recounted their nightly club-hopping of the New York jazz scene to hear their jazz idols. He also referenced Miriam Makeba, an early supporter of his career, later his wife for two years. Masekela sang two charts in his native African dialect, and referenced tours with Makeba and his own later political activism against apartheid.

The pair seemed to think as one as they alternated American jazz gems with African influences. Their call-and-response interplay was filled with ear-catching surprises, Masekela's horn style a contrast of fiery and earthy, as Willis created new configurations of old melodies. Although Masekela didn't play trumpet as he mainly did in past decades, age has not diminished his flugelhorn expertise of triple-tongue wizardry and the ability to sustain whole notes with pulsating depth. Their rendition of "Until the Real Thing Comes Along" featured Willis replicating Fats Waller's joyful keyboard riffs in support of Masekela's young-sounding vocal. "Monk's Mood" was sparked by Willis exploring Thelonious-style tempo change-ups, reflecting his early style before he began to explore avant-garde, jazz-rock and fusion modes.

Masekela recounted how he played piano and sang when he was young, but became interested in jazz at age 14 via the film Young Man With a Horn (Kirk Douglas played a role modeled after trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke). Young Hugh's first horn was given to him by Trevor Huddleston, the anti-apartheid chaplain at his school. Soon after, Louis Armstrong sent a trumpet for the school's Huddleston Jazz Band. "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" and "Old Rockin' Chair's Got Me" were Masekela's homages to his early idol, embellishing his vocals with Satchmo's memorable gravelly scatting.

Predictably, the concert's closing chart was "Grazing in the Grass," but the audience applauded and hooted long and loud, so the pair returned to play Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island." Masekela and Willis have recorded two albums, the newest a four-disc set, Friends (House of Masekela, 2012), as a sequel to their earlier coalition, Almost Like Being in Jazz (Chisssa Records, 2005).

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