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Four by Randy Weston

 Verve CD 314 529 237-2, 1995

Volcano Blues
 Antilles CD 314 519 269-2, 1993

Marrakech: In the Cool of the Evening
 Verve CD 314-521 588-2, 1992

African Sunrise
 Verve CD 314-511 717-2, 1991

It’s amazing that Randy Weston doesn’t get more recognition. He should be a star. When he releases a new CD, it should come with  buzz, at least among hard-core music fans. This American-born jazz pianist and composer has been exploring African rhythms, themes, and meanings for thirty years. He has produced five CDs in the ’90s, each one is bursting with a genuine, articulate, exciting American-African jazz. Given the vogue for world music and the current jazz renaissance, you’d think he’d have a ton of fans in both camps.

But he doesn’t. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s a matter of perception. Maybe it’s because he was never anointed one of the young lions of his time. Never acclaimed the creator of the next great thing. Never even played in one of the Miles Davis or John Coltrane bands. Back in the ’50s and ’60s, when the jazz scene was a whirlwind of activity, Weston’s recordings ranged from enjoyable to outstanding. Even though he stands six foot eight or so, he was somehow easy to overlook back then. Maybe it’s because we think you have to burst on the scene a fully formed genius, or you’ll never develop into a great artist.

Weston did himself no favors commercially in the late ’60s and ’70s. At a time when many musicians were turning to jazz-rock, jazz-funk, or jazz-whatever, Weston literally turned to Africa. He lived in Morocco for a number of years, and has since returned to Africa several times. Weston found a spiritual and cultural home, a deeper sense of self, a wealth of new experiences, a fountain of inspiration, and another universe of musical ideas.

Make no mistake. Weston is not a cultural tourist looking for cool ways to lively up his music. What he plays isn’t African folk or pop, it’s classic mainstream jazz. The influences of Ellington, Monk, and Mingus are plain to hear. Weston plays African music the way Davis or Coltrane play Broadway show tunes. As the man said, "It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it."

The richness of the music can be measured by the talented musicians who gather around him. Weston’s core group are all talented jazz veterans. Billy Higgins was virtually the Blue Note house drummer in the ’60s. Bassist Alex Blake seems to have played with just about everybody in the last thirty years. Billy Harper, known for his emotional, gospel-tinged tenor style, dates both his independent career and his association with Weston from the early ’70s Benny Powell, whose resume goes back to a stint with the Basie band in the ’50s, gets solo space afforded few trombonists these days. He makes you remember why the trombone was once second only to the trumpet in the jazz hierarchy.

These are all formidable musicians who seem to relish the new ideas and vocabulary they find in Weston’s music. Other musicians sit in, some more renowned–such as Dizzy Gillespie, Pharoah Sanders, Teddy Edwards, Dewey Redman, and Wallace Roney–but none less accomplished. For all of them, Weston’s settings inspire great soloing and ensemble playing.

The clearest trend in jazz today is classical. Many musicians, especially younger ones, are trying to reconnect to their jazz roots, the glory years of the ’50s and ’60s. They are looking for ways to say something contemporary with the jazz idiom of thirty years ago. Which is where Weston started in the early ’50s when he walked away from his Harlem restaurant to become a professional musician. He has traveled a long way since then. He’s found a lot to say and dynamic new ways to say it. These CDs prove it. They contain some of the freshest, most exciting, and most satisfying jazz of this decade.

 Saga best represents Weston’s range and variety. From the first cut–a wild and lyrical ballad called "The Beauty of It All"–you know this is a gem. It’s also a fine example of how Weston can craft a composition with logic and development, and still give his musicians plenty of room to solo. Throughout, the colors and tones, the instrumental voices, are handled with Ellingtonian deftness. Weston’s own playing incorporates Monk’s harmonic ideas and percussive effects. Like Monk (and Ellington too, for that matter) Weston loves the lower registers.

"Tangier Bay" opens with an unmistakably African theme, followed by an ensemble response that is pure jazz. "F.E.W. Blues," about Weston’s father, is full of garrulousness, love, and humor, as only a piano-trombone duet can be. "Saucer Eyes," originally penned by Weston in the ’50s, here becomes a straight-ahead blowin’ theme with the alto and tenor trading choruses, then half choruses, then 4s and 2s, until they end up jabbering simultaneously like two college kids wired on espressos. That’s followed immediately by bassist Alex Blake playing the haunting intro to "The Three Pyramids and the Sphynx," a bass feature full of the mystery, drama and sensuousness we associate with those monuments.

 Sagamaps Weston’s musical range–from solo piano to features for each musician to complex ensemble sections–as well as a range of themes from intensely personal to social, historical, and even humorous.

 Volcano Blues is roots oriented. It opens with Johnny Copeland on vocal and acoustic guitar doing "Blue Mood," as if to say "yes, this disk is definitely about the blues." Thereafter it alternates between what Weston identifies as African and American blues. On one level it’s a tutorial set to music (Weston was at one time a public school music teacher). Personally, I don’t get wrapped up in the educational approach. I sink into one soulful blues after another and let the African and American colorations flow with the music. Melba Liston did the arrangements, and her contributions earned her equal billing with Weston above the title. Under her direction everything from duos and trios to the full ten-piece band sound terrific.

I have to put in a plug for Liston. She created the arrangements for  African Sunrise too. What an arranger does can be hard to measure, but in Liston’s case you can hear the difference. The one CD she didn’t work on,  Saga, has expansive, discursive feeling.  African Sunrise and  Volcano Blues, by comparison, are as sharp as tacks. The pacing is crisp, the ideas develop logically, and the drama and tension rise and fall just right.

 Marrakech: In the Cool of the Evening was recorded one September evening in the ballroom of the La Mamounia hotel in Marrakech with Weston alone on the piano. The selection of material is far-ranging–"The Jitterbug Waltz" (Fats Waller), "In the Cool of the Evening" (Nat King Cole), and "Lotus Blossom" (Billy Strayhorn), plus a "Portrait Of Dizzy" medley comprised of tunes associated with Gillespie, as well as Weston’s own "Portrait Of Billie Holiday" and a half dozen other Weston compositions. I’m not a musician, so I get lost rather quickly in the intricacies of solo piano work. But it’s all very atmospheric and evocative, and I do enjoy listening to sessions like this occasionally.

 African Sunrise is the most African of these releases. Weston assembled an eleven-piece band and the makeup of the rhythm section makes his intentions clear. There are two basses, two percussionists (one of whom is the legendary Big Black) and one drummer, plus Weston on piano, and they swing like a force of nature. The opening cut, "African Cookbook," is a rich blend of instrumental flavors and colors–from soulful, even tender ensemble passages to passionate solos by three or four players simultaneously–all swept forward by that incredible tidal wave of a rhythm section. After seventeen marvelous minutes, the music tapers down to a beautiful ending by the unaccompanied basses, ending where all music begins, with a low murmur of rhythm and melody.

Dizzy Gillespie appears on the title cut, which written by Weston in homage of Gillespie’s Afro-Cuban bands of the ’40s and ’50s. Gillespie, in his seventies when this was recorded, sounds like a hoarse shadow of his former self (actually, he sounds like Miles Davis doing a Gillespie imitation), but his sense of timing is as sharp as ever. Pharoah Sanders, an old Africanist himself, makes an impassioned and lyrical appearance on "African Cookbook." The Weston regulars are here too. Benny Powell even gets in a solo on bass trombone (now there’s an instrumental color only an Ellingtonian could love–or find a place for).

These performances sound like a Mingus session–passionate, raucous at times, gentle, and tender, the players turning in one inspired solo after another, all within the framework of great compositions. Definitely not fade-in-the-background-jazz-groove music. Weston digs deep into his bag of music to conjure up real toe-tapping Mingus swing world bebop jazz music for the ’90s.–  Pete Kelly

Copyright © 1997 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.