Hugh Masekela’s trumpet shimmers like the noontime sun in his native South Africa. Larry Willis’ piano twinkles like the lights on a slick Manhattan street, ‘round about midnight.
“Now you’re getting poetic,” Masekela said, laughing at the metaphor. “We don’t analyze what we do. We just work hard and reach out for the beauty.”
For a trumpet player, Masekela seems reluctant to blow his own horn. But be forewarned: music lovers will have a rare opportunity in East Lansing to hear two venerable jazz masters, in relaxed duet format, at the Wharton Center’s intimate Pasant Theatre Tuesday.With a combined century-plus of history playing jazz, traditional African and pop music, the duo’s 50- year friendship is a long-running etude in brass and ivory.
They met while studying classical music at the Manhattan School of Music in the early 1960s.
“We liked the same composers. We went club-hopping together,” Masekela said. “We just have the same muse, I guess.”
Although jazz is at the heart of their art, both Masekela and Willis have contributed to a lot of chart-topping music over the decades. Willis was a member of Blood, Sweat & Tears for seven years. Masekela famously collaborated with Paul Simon on “Graceland” and has played with a long list of rock stars, from the Byrds (in the late 1960s) to the Dave Matthews Band (in Johannesburg last year). “Grazing In the Grass,” Masekela’s big 1968 hit, is still a staple at his concerts.
Barely out of his teens, Masekela cofounded the Jazz Epistles, the first group of African musicians to make a jazz recording. He left South Africa and its oppressive apartheid regime to study music in London and Manhattan — with the help of high-placed fans like violinist Yehudi Menuhin and actor-singer-activist Harry Belafonte.
Between tunes Tuesday, expect Masekela to tell stories of the glory days of New York jazz clubs, when Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and other jazz giants walked the earth.
“You showed your student card and you went in for free,” Masekela recalled. “You could see 10, 12 great people playing in one night.”
Willis snagged a gig with legendary alto saxman Jackie MacLean at age 17.
“It was also a time of hard study,” Masekela said. “We did a lot of jamming — not for fun, but to learn.”
In the 1970s, Masekela reconnected with his South African roots, folding traditional melodies and rhythms into his eclectic sound.
Tuesday’s duo set will reflect both men’s wide-ranging tastes.
“It’s a cross-section of our musical experiences in traditional South African music, the great American songbook and jazz classics,” Willis said.
“The only thing we don’t do is the classical music we studied in school,” Masekela added dryly.
On stage, Willis and Masekela settle into thoughtful, witty musical conversations, frequently taking venerable standards and jazz classics like Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” as a starting point.
Willis regards the standards as living touchstones of a bygone era.
“They tell stories about human life,” Willis explained. “We don’t talk to one another very much anymore.”
Never mind stopping to smell the roses — Willis is worried that nobody is taking the time to grow them in the first place.
“There are no written songs that come from movies anymore,” he said. “Most movie scores have become a conglomeration of sound effects. We are left with what we have.”
Masekela and Willis have their most satisfying musical conversations at that sweet spot where African rhythms and melodies intersect with post-bop 1960s jazz. For a glorious, funky dose of the Masekela/Willis partnership in full Afro-jazz bloom, check out their 1972 quintet recording, “Home is Where the Music Is,” re-mastered to earpopping perfection on the Verve label.
Since 1992, Willis has turned out more than a dozen gorgeous recordings on the small jazz label Mapleshade, where he is also producer and music director. One of the best is “Solo Spirit,” a fervent, crystalline solo exploration of Willis’ religious faith. In another classic, “A Minute With Miles,” Willis teamed up with the muted trumpet of Eddie Gale to create the finest post-Miles- Davis rainy-day disc ever made. And that’s no coincidence.
“When I was a teenager, somebody turned me on to Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue,’ and it blew me away,” Willis said. “It influenced both Hugh and myself. It was cutting edge, but at the same time very, very simple.”
Willis plays in a limpid, liquid style that has complemented many great trumpet players, from Gale to Nat Adderley, Lee Morgan, Roy Hargrove, and, of course, Masekela. His lyricism, fluidity and use of silence evokes pianists Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans, both of whom played on “Kind of Blue.”
“There’s not one song on that record where the melody consists of any more than five notes,” Willis said. “Miles put that simple concept into the hands of these virtuoso players in his band. That, in itself, inspired me to want to do this.”
(Note to jazz lovers: the only surviving member of the legendary “Kind of Blue” band, drummer Jimmy Cobb, is coming to East Lansing for a week-long residency starting Monday and ending in a Dec. 4 concert at MSU.)
These days, Masekela is involved in a slew of projects, including a new record with Willis, a foundation to help schools in South Africa and a second volume of his autobiography, “Still Grazing.”
“I’m working on a novel, I’m reading a lot. I’m just excited to be alive,” he said.
In music and life, Masekela carries himself like a healer, but he doesn’t go in for platitudes.
“I’m a realist. I don’t think you can go to a hospital and play for people and make them heal,” he said with a laugh.
Nudge him a bit, however, and his philosophy will peek through the crust.
“Music is a part of nature, just like the trees, the air and the clouds,” he said. “It’s not a man-made thing. It’s there to be learned, studied and enjoyed. But if you’re not nice to music, it can be very vengeful. If you abuse it, it can fight back.”
Just when you think Masekela will never blow his own horn, he surprises you.
“When you hear us live, it’s a very big difference from the studio,” he said. “If you like our record, you’ll probably pass out when you hear us.”
Hugh Masekela & Larry Willis: Best of Friends
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 1 $53/$15 MSU students Wharton Center Pasant Theatre 750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing (517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com