The recipient tomorrow night of a lifetime achievement award at the Jazz FM Awards, Hugh Masekela walked on to the Barbican stage a few steps behind pianist Larry Willis and after a warm round of applause and a few words from the South African cultural icon Willis then set to work quickly and deftly putting his stamp on Herbie Hancock’s ‘Maiden Voyage’ as Masekela on his flugelhorn elaborated imaginatively around the melody.

The concert was actually bookended by Hancock tunes, with ‘Cantaloupe Island’ the encore at the end, Masekela in one of his asides to the audience reminiscing about how he and Willis first knew Hancock in their New York days as young students without a dime to their names back in the early-1960s, Hancock by then basking in the success of his hit ‘Watermelon Man’ turning up in a swish Cobra car, Donald Byrd in his Jaguar. “We didn’t hold it against him!”

Bugged a bit by people taking pictures Masekela had a fun way of dealing with the nuisance that made the cameraphone snappers look a bit silly saying he and Willis thought the appearance of these phones popping up was like ET. As audience members ignored his request and lights flared Masekela would call out “ET go home” or tick off people near the front: “Stop taping!” he would gently admonish.

Willis, known for his work with Jackie McLean and with Blood Sweat & Tears, was a firm presence beside Masekela, his big hands and forceful technique giving the now 76-year-old South African all the support he needed. Masekela sang and vocalised a good deal adding percussion and banging a tambourine against his chest or sometimes switching to make extravagant dance movements and even occasionally getting down low or making extra little sign-off whoops and hollers. A croon easily enough became a yell of excitement.

A concert in a palace of culture is a long way from the shanty town or the coal train; and Masekela has never shied away from tackling social issues and ‘Stimela’ with its goosebumps-inducing introduction: “There is a train that comes from Namibia and Malawi, there is a train that comes from Zambia and Zimbabwe” the song of harsh labour and exploitation unfolding among train noises and all the theatricality and song delivery skills at Masekela’s disposal was the best example of this at the concert. Masekela had earlier ushered us to our feet to sway along to his signature hit ‘Grazing in the Grass’ always a pleasure to hear, Willis hypnotic in the marabi-style vamp. 

Nostalgic for the old jazz clubs and music places of New York where Masekela told us you could see Coltrane at the Half Note, Miles at the Vanguard, Dizzy, Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Ellington, the list seeming endless as his eyes lit up, Masekela went on to praise Fats Waller, describing his rotund look, cigar dangling from his mouth, whiskey in his hand, arms round a bunch of girls, and sang ‘Until the Real Thing Comes Along’ easily his best vocal of the night. Introducing Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Rockin’ Chair’ he explained to us that seeing the songwriter act in Young Man With A Horn inspired him to become a jazz musician. “And we wouldn’t be here tonight without Louis Armstrong,” he said, explaining how Armstrong had given him a trumpet to play as a young man in South Africa.

Support was by Vula Malinga, a London soul singer with South African heritage who has been working with Lalah Hathaway recently and performed a short set here accompanied by pianist Nate Williams the singer journeying far into the highest part of her range scatting exuberantly and scoring best on Hathaway’s ‘Shine.’

Stephen Graham

Hugh Masekela and Larry Willis, above