Randy Weston

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Sat Aug 12 15:50:19 MDT 2000

Since I was on vacation last week and didn't have to get up early, I
decided to treat myself to some live music at one of NYC's pricier
nightclubs. Like Glen Gould, I generally prefer recordings to live
performances since there are fewer distractions. Now if I could only play
the piano like he did...

I have been listening to Randy Weston's African influenced jazz for the
better part of 40 years but I have never heard him perform in person. A
Village Voice publicity blurb said:

"His African Rhythms Quintet is a lean, undulating, aggressive, lyrical joy
of a band. Although Weston's '50s songs are no longer covered as widely as
they used to be--and will be again--they have proven durable in their
humor, rhythm, and intricate melodic coils, and Weston finds ways to
refurbish them that confirms the Moroccan-Brooklyn connection that defines
his music."

As Randy Weston strode into the Iridium five minutes before the set, he
made a vivid impression at 6'6" and dressed in a flowing orange African
dashiki. At the age of 73, he seems to be in great shape physically and
might even be taken for a former professional athlete. He told a Boston
Globe reporter last year, "I liked to shoot baskets but I didn't like to
run. And musicians were so important in the black community when I was
young. We copied how they dressed. If you were a musician in the black
community, you didn't go out to buy cigarettes unless you were immaculate."

His physical power also seems to affect the way he plays the piano, his
huge hands making an almost percussive use of the keyboards as was the case
of his major influence, Thelonious Monk. What I heard, however, was not
only the inflections of Monk but of the pianist who influenced both of them
and who doesn't get near as much credit as an innovator as he deserves,
namely Duke Ellington. When you listen to Ellington in small group
settings, where his piano solos are given freer rein than in big band
arrangements, you will hear the same elements that you find in Monk, Weston
and other great "two hand" pianists. These include a rolling bass line,
liberal use of dissonances and tone clusters punctuated by dramatic pauses.
You can hear Ellington at his best in the recording "Money Jungle", where
he is joined by bassist Charlie Mingus and drummer Max Roach.

With his latest band, Weston blends his Monk-like piano style with a very
unusual rhythm section. Instead of using a conventional drum set, he relies
on a percussionist named Neil Clarke who performs on conga and hand
cymbals. So instead of the typical 4/4 beat that typifies modern jazz
performance, you get a polyrhythmic foundation that complements the
African-influenced harmonies of Weston's compositions. The bassist Alex
Blake is also extremely unconventional, using a combination of strumming,
slapping and plucking often accompanied with a kind of scat singing
reminiscent of Slam Stewart from an earlier generation. The horn player
(flute, alto and soprano sax) is Talib Kibwe, who reminds me a lot of
Arthur Blythe and of Yusef Lateef, also from an earlier generation.

It is African influences that makes Weston's music special. Unlike American
jazz standards, Weston's tunes dispense with the typical architecture of
theme-variation-resolution. When you hear most classic jazz compositions,
you are geared to expect a certain tripartite form that is almost as much
of a convention as a 4-movement symphony. For example, in something like
the Miles Davis performances of "My Funny Valentine", you are never that
far away from the underlying song structure. If you didn't hear a
restatement of the tune at the end of the performance, you'd feel cheated.

In a Weston composition, you are much less aware of a beginning, middle or
end. The performance is much more like African popular or folk music which
does not follow a linear path. Instead, after a short statement of the
theme, you are treated to much more interplay than is normal in a standard
jazz performance. It is also much more difficult to sense when the "climax"
of a piece is nearing. One can imagine Weston being influenced by the
performances of dervishes in Morocco where he lived for many years or by
other forms of African music that are ritualistic, nonlinear and ecstatic
in nature.

Weston moved to Morocco in 1967, where he opened a nightclub and studied
with the master musicians of the Gnawa, a sub-Saharan group of people first
brought to Morocco as slaves. By combining the music of tropical Africa and
desert Africa, they created a unique sound that Weston finally documented
on his 1994 album, "The Splendid Master Gnawa Musicians of Morocco"
(Verve/Antilles). His set at the Iridium included a piece influenced by the
Gnawa that was absolutely riveting. It reminded me a bit of John Coltrane's
classic "Africa Brass", but much tighter and much more authentic.

Like many African-Americans in New York City and other cosmopolitan
centers, Weston became a Pan-Africanist prior to the black nationalist
awakening of the 1960s. He told the Boston Globe, "My father, Frank Edward
Weston, is from very proud people, and he wanted to instill that pride in
me. He loved Africa, and told me as a little boy that I had to know my
ancestral home. He insisted on two things - that I study African history
from before the continent was invaded, and learn to play the piano. Mom
gave me the church and the blues. It was a wonderful foundation."

Weston collaborated for many years with Melba Liston, a composer and
trombone player who died last year. Liston was one of the great female
instrumentalists of the 20th century. Shortly before her death, Weston
described their first encounter: "I was listening to Dizzy's band at
Birdland and saw this beautiful woman playing the trombone. It was Melba
Liston, featured on her own arrangement of 'My Reverie.' When I introduced
myself and we shook hands, it was like electricity. We first worked
together in 1958, when she arranged seven of my children's waltzes for the
album 'Little Niles,' and we're still working together."

Liston participated in "Uhuru Afrika," Weston's classic 1960 recording that
celebrated the continent's political liberation. "People thought we were
crazy radicals when we did that album but look at the popularity of African
and Asian music now." He also collaborated with Langston Hughes who
contributed a poem to 'Uhuru Afrika,' and was on Weston's first trip to
Africa the following year. Langston's will specified that Weston play at
his funeral, and that the last piece had to be Duke Ellington's "Do Nothin'
Till You Hear From Me."

Weston's 1961 trip to Nigeria reinforced the Pan-Africanism that his father
instilled in him. "I knew I was back home in the land of my ancestors. I
saw the same faces as in Harlem and Brooklyn, and the music had the same
spiritual character. On that first trip we had traditional African dancers
on the same stage with dancers from the Savoy Ballroom, and we could see
that we hadn't changed that much. Our music was African music."

If you get a chance to hear Randy Weston in person, don't miss it. Also
highly recommended is his 1995 recording "Earth Birth" (Verve/Gitanes),
with arrangements by Melba Liston. Weston is joined by bassist Christian
McBride and the great drummer Billy Higgins on this recording, with a
string orchestra conducted by Paul West. It includes classic Weston tunes,
such as "Little Niles" and "Hi-Fly".

Louis Proyect
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