On Hugh Masekela’s Birthday, An Uncut Blindfold Test from 2009

In celebration of the 74th birthday of South African trumpeter, flugelhorn, and cornet master (and singer) Hugh Masekela, I’m offering the uncut transcript of a DownBeat Blindfold Test I had the privilege of conducting with him in 2009.

* * * *

1. Max Roach-Booker Little, “Tears for Johannesburg” (from WE INSIST: FREEDOM NOW SUITE, Candid, 1960) (Roach, drums, composer; Booker Little, trumpet; Julian Priester, trombone; Walter Benton, tenor saxophone; Abbey Lincoln, voice; James Schenk, bass)

I really liked that. I have no idea who it could be. But it reminds me a lot of the kind of things that Max Roach was doing in the late ‘60s, and it sounded… He had a group with Booker Little. But he did some things where he got guys like Chief Bey to come and play. I think it was Max’s era, when he was really into African activism. Yeah. But I loved it, man. I don’t know who it is. It could have been Charles Tolliver on trumpet, or Booker Little, or Cecil Bridgewater. But I’m not good at guessing. 5 stars. I really loved it. [AFTER] I went to school with Booker Little, you know, at Manhattan School of Music. I was very close to Max and Abbey. I’m very happy that I guess it right. The last time I did this test was with Leonard Feather in 1967, and I got everything wrong. This is the first time I passed anything in this test!

2. Mongezi Feza, “Diamond Express” (from Dudu Pukwana, DIAMOND EXPRESS, Arista, 1975) (Mongezi Feza, trumpet; Dudu Pukwana, alto saxophone; Frank Roberts, keyboards;  Lucky Ranko, guitar; Ernest Othole, electric bass; Louis Moholo, drums)

I’m going to guess here. I don’t know when it would have been, but it sounds very much like Dudu Pukwana on saxophone, and it could be either when they were with Chris McGregor and then when they were the Blue Notes, or maybe later on the Brotherhood of Breath. The guitar player sounded like Lucky Ranko, and it sounded like those guys when they were in London. I don’t know whether Johnny Dyani was on bass, and Mongezi Feza on trumpet probably. But that definitely was Dudu Pukwana. I was a great friend of Dudu’s, and we did a great album together that’s still a collector’s item called Home Is Where the Music Is. I loved Dudu. He was one of the most beautiful players. I was really heartbroken when he went away. But that’s a wonderful South African groove. I wish that the South African musicians could be listening to stuff like this. It definitely starts to bring back… But it’s beautiful. 5 stars. [AFTER] They came over to England… This was the second group after we formed the Jazz Epistles with Abdullah Ibrahim (who was Dollar Brand then), and Johnny Gertze (bass), and Makhaya Ntshoko on drums, and Jonas Gwangwa on trombone, and Kippie Moeketsi on saxophone. We were a group called the Jazz Epistles, and we did the first long-playing record by an African group in South Africa in 1959. It’s still a collector’s item. Then I left, and Jonas went to… Well, we broke up because after the Sharpeville massacre, gatherings of more than ten people were not allowed, and we were just about to go… We had just broken out, we were about to go on a national tour of South Africa, and we would have been the first instrumental group to be able to do that, and we had to break up. But then a year or two later, the Blue Notes, formed by Chris McGregor and Dudu Pukwana, came out of South Africa, and they came out to, like, Switzerland, and they did extremely well. They really took Europe by storm. Louis Moholo was on drums, and he’s the only one alive of them. All of them died. Dudu died. Mongezi Feza, the trumpet player, died. Johnny Dyani on bass died. Chris McGregor also passed away. Whenever I see Louis Moholo, he goes, “One man standing!” [LAUGHS] But I loved those guys. They were fantastic musicians. I’m crazy about that album. I’m going to get that album for myself, if I can find it.

3. Wynton Marsalis, “Place Congo” (from CONGO SQUARE, JALC, 2008) (Marsalis, composer; Soloists: Andre Haywood, trombone; James Zollar, trumpet; Sherman Irby, alto saxophone; Yacub Addy, master drum)

Wow, that’s beautiful. I really enjoyed that. You have to make me a copy of all these records! That sounded like something from the late ‘60s or early ‘70s. Max Roach started this whole interest in African music, and at the same time, it sounded very much like something…if Duke Ellington wanted to write an African suite, he would have done an arrangement like that. So I suspected at one time that it was him. But I really have no idea who it was. I keep hearing people like Chief Bey playing in the drum section. But it was really a beautiful African kind of suite, a la Duke Ellington. I don’t know if somebody was trying to imitate him. Five stars. It’s really beautiful. I really don’t know who it was. I thought I heard Eric Dolphy or somebody somewhere there. [AFTER] Wynton Marsalis! Really. He didn’t play a solo.  I think that’s the best thing I’ve ever heard that he’s done. It’s a great collaboration. It’s definitely Duke Ellington-esque. Something that, like I said, Duke would have done—the voicings, the solos, and some of the contemporary stuff. It’s very beautiful.  Five stars.

4. Jerry Gonzalez, “To Wisdom The Prize” (from MOLIENDO CAFÉ, Sunnyside, 1991) (Jerry Gonzalez, flugelhorn, congas; Carter Jefferson, tenor saxophone; Joe Ford, alto saxophone; Larry Willis, composer, piano; Andy Gonzalez, bass; Steve Berrios, percussion)

I have no idea who that might be. For a time there, the piano player sounded like Larry Willis, who I started playing with… My first group was with Larry Willis. It sounded maybe like it could be one of Larry’s records. I’m not sure. The piano solos and the voicings and all that; Larry did pretty nice stuff like that. If the guy isn’t Larry Willis, then he tries to play like him—or he influenced Larry Willis, one of the two. The trumpet player with the beautiful fat tone, I don’t know who it might be. Maybe Eddie Henderson. I have no idea. But I liked that very much. Four stars. I have no idea who it was. [AFTER] Who’s playing trumpet? Jerry? Fantastic. I liked it very much.

5. Amir El-Saffar, “Flood” (from TWO RIVERS, Pi, 2007) (Amir ElSaffar: trumpet, arranger; Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto saxophone; Zaafer Tawil: violin, oud, dumbek; Tareq Abboushi: buzuq, frame drum; Carlo DeRosa: bass; Nasheet Waits: drums)

I got very thirsty on that one. It was very sort of Middle Eastern jazz or Arabic jazz, or maybe Saharan jazz. I had pictures of camels and a lot of sand and sandstorms, and I was dying for an oasis. I have no idea who it is. But thematically, I enjoyed it very much, because obviously it had a Saharan-Middle Eastern thing.  I don’t know who it is. I’m not a critic of people who play. But I would give it three stars. [AFTER] Well, I wasn’t too off when I said it was Arabic-Saharan jazz.

6. Charles Tolliver, “Chedlike” (from EMPEROR MARCH, Half Note, 2009) (Tolliver, trumpet s solo, composer, arranger; Cameron Johnson, Michael Williams, Keyon Harrold, David Weiss, trumpets; Mike Dease, Jason Jackson, Stafford Hunter, Ernest Stewart, Aaron Johnson,  trombones; Bill Saxton, Bruce Williams, Todd Bashore, Billy Harper, Marcus Strickland, Jason Marshall, saxophones, woodwinds; Anthony Wonsey. piano; Reginald Workman, bass; Gene Jackson, drums)

I loved it. It sounded like somebody trying to imitate Gil Evans. If it wasn’t the Gil Evans band, then it was somebody who is a big fan of Gil Evans. The drummer reminded me a lot of Elvin Jones. I don’t know anybody else who played like that. If it’s not Elvin Jones, it’s a great fan of Elvin Jones. I was crazy about both of them. The first night I came to New York, in 1960, I saw Elvin Jones with John Coltrane, Reggie Workman and McCoy Tyner, and I’d never seen a drummer play like that. This reminded me of that night in September 1960. All the work Gil Evans did with Miles Davis was just phenomenal. I have all his stuff. I loved that very much. I don’t know who the trumpet player was. It could have been Johnny Coles. I’m not sure. Johnny Coles played much more mellow. So I’ll give it four stars. [AFTER] So Charles must have been a great fan of Gil Evans. Or Gil Evans must have been a great fan of Charles Tolliver. I don’t know who came first. The arrangement was very Gil Evansish. I know Charles a long time.

7. Brecker Brothers, “Wakaria (What’s Up?)” (from RETURN OF THE BRECKER BROTHERS, GRP, 1992) (Randy Brecker, trumpet and flugelhorn; Michael Brecker, tenor saxophone, composer, arranger; Armand Sabal-Lecco, bass, piccolo bass, drums, percussion, vocals, arranger; Max Risenhoover, snare programming & ride cymbal; George Whitty, keyboards; Dennis Chambers, drums

Very nice. I don’t know who that is. I have no idea who that is. But I loved the arrangement. It sounded like a recent recording (I might be wrong). I really enjoyed it. 4½ stars. I have no idea who it is. I really loved it. The trumpet sounded like it was played through some kind of electronic… I’ll tell you something. To a great extent, after the ‘60s, after Miles and Clifford Brown and Fats Navarro and Dizzy, all those guys from that time, and of course Louis before that…you could always tell who was playing. But later on, it became very technical, and people became very technically proficient. You couldn’t really tell who they were. They were technically unbelievable, but you just couldn’t say there is so-and-so. I guess also having been away from the States for over 18 years, I haven’t followed any of the new developments. But it was technically very, very proficient. I loved the arrangement. In fact, I’m still remembering the melody. It’s a very nice children’s song kind of thing. I don’t know     it was. [AFTER] The Breckers. I didn’t know their work very well. I loved Michael’s playing a lot. Again, for me, even though they’re techincally proficient, I could never say that’s Michael… After Coltrane, after the guys from the ‘50s and ‘60s, everybody else seemed to imitate them in one way or the other, and I never could put my finger on them and say it’s so-and-so. Because it seemed like after that, there was nowhere to go. Fusion came in, and all kinds of things. {How did you deal with that yourself?] Well, I came here as a bebopper, and my story is that I had hoped to play with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, because that was like the college of everybody. But everybody said, “Form your own group. You come from Africa. Let’s see what… You should be teaching us stuff. You shouldn’t be imitating us. As a result, I reverted back to the township dance bands that I came from, and my thing became sort of a hybrid between that and jazz. I went back to the township. I think that’s what makes me stand out, not to sound like other people.

8. Dizzy Gillespie, “Africana” (from GILLESPIANA, Verve, 1961) (Soloists: Gillespie, trumpet; Leo Wright, flute; Lalo Schifrin, piano, composer; Art Davis, bass; Chuck Lampkin, drums)

That sounded like somebody trying to imitate Dizzy Gillespie—or Dizzy himself. The flute a little bit sounded like it might have been James Moody. I don’t know how long ago it was done. If it wasn’t Dizzy, it could have been Jon Faddis. But it felt to me like Dizzy Gillespie. I loved the piece. It sounded like something Dizzy would have done. It’s very Dizzy-esque. I don’t know who might have arranged it or when it was done. I remember a time when he was doing a lot of work with Quincy Jones, but that sounds like something maybe much later. But I loved it very much. 5 stars. [AFTER] Beautiful. Well, Dizzy was the Svengali and god of the trumpet. So many people came from him. Harmonically, he was so amazing. He could do soft things. He did beautiful things on the Harmon mute. He played Harmon mute on that. He and Miles were like the… When they played the Harmon mute, I threw mine away. I stopped playing the mute when I heard Dizzy and Miles play. Dizzy used to play it on “Con Alma,” on… but he was a god.

Dizzy was also the most beautiful person I ever met. For me, he was like a foster dad. He bought me my first winter coat when I came to the States. He sent me records in South Africa long before I came. I met him through Miriam, who he really loved and looked after. She introduced me to him by letter. We didn’t have phones at that time. The first night I came to New York, Dizzy was playing at the Jazz Gallery, opposite Monk, and he had insisted that as soon as I land I have to call him and come see him wherever he was—and he happened to be at the Jazz Gallery. He introduced me to Monk when he came off the set. He had that band. He had Leo Wright and Chris White and Rudy Collins and Lalo Schiffrin on piano. They’d just come back from South America, and he was playing “Desafinado” and “Con Alma” and all those Brazilian songs. Then he introduced me to Monk and said, “Thel, Thel, this is that little trumpet player I was telling you about who was coming from Africa,” and Monk stuck out his hand, a limp hand, and he went, ‘NEIGHHH…,” heh-heh-heh, and walked away. Dizzy’s like, “Oh, Thel, you was born dead.” Then he said, “Listen, Max wants to meet you.” Max was playing around the corner with Booker Little and Eric Dolphy was on saxophone, opposite the Mingus band. He took me there and introduced me to Max. At the time Max was with Abbey, and really into the anti-apartheid movement. Members, Don’t Be Weary, right? I had just come off the plane from England. When I came back to the Jazz Gallery, he said, “Where are you going?” I said, “I have to go and sleep, man—I’m going home.” He said, “No-no-no, you can’t sleep; you can’t go home. I told Coltrane that you were coming to see him. He’s waiting for you. You’ve got to go to the Half Note. So I went to the Half Note, and I stayed there til 4 in the morning. When I got out of the Half Note, I got out of the cab, and I Coltrane and McCoy Tyner and Reggie Workman were waiting on the sidewalk for me. Dizzy had told them, “This guy is coming.” So Dizzy introduced me to everybody. In one night, I saw him, I saw Monk, I saw Max, I saw Charlie Mingus, and I saw Trane. And I left the Half Note at 4 in the morning. 5½ stars for Dizzy. 7 stars!

9.  Jon Hassell, “Northline” (#9) (from LAST NIGHT THE MOON CAME DROPPING ITS CLOTHES IN THE STREET, ECM, 2009) (Hassell, trumpet; Peter Freeman, bass; Jan Bang, live sampling; Elvind Aarset, guitar; Helge Norbakken, drums)

I don’t know who it is. But I think only Miles was able to play in those dark, sleepy moods, and still keep you up. This one was too foggy and misty for me. 2 stars. It sounded like a soundtrack, an effect for something. It could have been a soundtrack. I don’t knock anybody. A fantastic lower register technique, a beautiful tone, but it didn’t go anywhere, didn’t take me anywhere. [AFTER] I wasn’t too far off. It was a mood compositional kind of thing. It sounded like something for a movie where the murder is hiding in the fog.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, trumpet

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