Hugh Masekela, working for the first time Thursday night in the elegant Art Deco setting of Long Beach's Birdland West, looked around the room and decided to get things under way with an unusual warm-up.
Instead of ripping into a blues or a rhythm tune to get the juices flowing, he took a few moments to share an invocation. With the rest of his band grooving softly in the background, the African trumpeter dedicated his set to a long, lovingly compiled list of influences that included the heroes of American and African jazz and pop.
The invocation--a perfect illustration of Masekela's remarkably varied musical roots--clearly had a good effect. Once past a somewhat ragged opening piece, he sounded in fine fettle, his lyrical fluegelhorn lines cooking with energy, spirit and humor.
Most of the works were identified as the compositions of African musicians, but their universality was self-evident. Hard-cooking funk is what it is, after all, and Masekela's program was peppered with large doses of body-shaking rhythms. Pieces like "Now Or Never" and "Lady-O" may have originated in Africa, but their zest and vigor required no translations.
Masekela's vocals were an added treat. Far from being casual additions to his performance, they communicated passion and intensity that rivaled and sometimes surpassed his instrumental work. When his singing expressed, as it often did, deep feelings about South African freedom, the music moved beyond entertainment into the realm of powerful emotional commitment.
The Masekela band was a well-integrated mixture of African and American musicians. Cape Town alto saxophonist Morris Goldberg successfully managed to negotiate the shadowy line between funk and fusion. Keyboardist Tony Cedras, also from Cape Town, ranged easily from gospel-styled piano to soaring synthesizer lines, while Nigerian percussionist Remi Kabaka and Americans Damon Duewhite on drums and Chulo on bass laid down a colorful and compelling flow of rhythm.
Hugh Masekela continues at Birdland West through tonight.