Photo: Paolo Iammarrone
Pianist, composer, arranger Larry Willis has had an important and distinguished 50+ year career in jazz. Since making his recording debut of Jackie McLean's landmark 1965 album Right Now!, Harlem-born Willis has played everything from free jazz to fusion to rock, while performing as a valued sideman with such jazz titans as Dizzy Gillespie, Lee Morgan, Cannonball Adderley, Art Blakey and Woody Shaw. That versatility is highlighted on Larry's High Note recording which found him once again in the company of bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Billy Drummond.
Once identified with on-the-edge free music, keyboardist Larry Willis had a profitable flirtation with fusion in the '70s, then moved to hard bop in the '80s and '90s. Willis' playing has been frenetic, ambitious, and interesting, but during his jazz-rock and fusion days it was funky but greatly restrained and simplistic. A devotee of Herbie Hancock, Willis has found a good balance, with expertly constructed modal solos and also lyrical, relaxed statements. Willis graduated from the Manhattan School of Music in the early '60s, then played with Jackie McLean and Hugh Masekela. He recorded with Lee Morgan and McLean in the mid-'60s, and worked with Kai Winding, as well as recording with Robin Kenyatta in 1969.
Willis turned to synthesizer and electric piano in the '70s, doing sessions with Cannonball Adderley, Earl May, Joe Henderson, Richard "Groove" Holmes, and Masekela again.
He joined Blood, Sweat & Tears in 1972, recorded with Alphonse Mouzon in both 1972 and 1973, and did dates as a leader and freelance session musician. Willis also recorded and performed with Stan Getz, Slide Hampton, Gloria Lynn, Miriam Makeba, Carmen McRae, Shirley Horn, Herb Alpert, Ryo Kawasaki and Sonny Fortune, David "Fathead" Newman and Carla Bley in the ‘70s and '80s. He toured and recorded with Nat Adderley in the '80s and joined Woody Shaw's quintet in 1986. He's done sessions as a leader for Groove Merchant, Steeplechase, Audioquest, Brunswick, Mapleshade and High Note.
Willis has arranged and composed music, including the jazz standard “To Wisdom, The Prize,” orchestral compositions for the Symphony Orchestra at Florida Southern College, Roy Hargrove’s From Moment to Moment, as well as Willis’s own recording, Sanctuary.
Larry Willis and Hugh Masekela reunited in 2012 as a piano/trumpet duo in the latest manifestation of a fruitful and enduring friendship to produce friends, a wide-ranging four-disc album recorded in South Africa. They toured together with shared billing. In 2018 Willis returned to South Africa to complete a recording project dedicated to Masekela.
When not touring, Willis is involved in education, offering master class work at the Peabody Institute, Arizona State University, Stanford University and Elizabeth City State University.
Larry Willis has joined with Gary Bartz, Buster Williams and Al Foster, comprising the quartet HEADS OF STATE, four of the greatest jazz musicians working today. He also heads his own band HEAVY BLUE.