Four by Randy Weston
Verve CD 314 529 237-2,
Antilles CD 314 519
Marrakech: In the Cool of the Evening
Verve CD 314-521 588-2, 1992
Verve CD 314-511
Its amazing that Randy Weston doesnt 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, youd think
hed have a ton of fans in both camps.
But he doesnt. Im not sure why. Maybe
its a matter of perception. Maybe its 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, Westons recordings ranged
from enjoyable to outstanding. Even though he stands six
foot eight or so, he was somehow easy to overlook back then.
Maybe its because we think you have to burst on the
scene a fully formed genius, or youll 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
isnt African folk or pop, its 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
aint what you do, its the way that you do
The richness of the music can be measured by the
talented musicians who gather around him. Westons 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
These are all formidable musicians who seem to relish
the new ideas and vocabulary they find in Westons
music. Other musicians sit in, some more renownedsuch
as Dizzy Gillespie, Pharoah Sanders, Teddy Edwards, Dewey
Redman, and Wallace Roneybut none less accomplished.
For all of them, Westons 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. Hes 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
Saga best represents Westons
range and variety. From the first cuta wild and
lyrical ballad called "The Beauty of It
All"you know this is a gem. Its 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.
Westons own playing incorporates Monks 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 Westons 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. Thats 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
Sagamaps Westons musical
rangefrom solo piano to features for each musician to
complex ensemble sectionsas well as a range of themes
from intensely personal to social, historical, and even
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 its a tutorial set to
music (Weston was at one time a public school music
teacher). Personally, I dont 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 Listons
case you can hear the difference. The one CD she didnt
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 Westons own
"Portrait Of Billie Holiday" and a half dozen
other Weston compositions. Im not a musician, so I get
lost rather quickly in the intricacies of solo piano work.
But its 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 colorsfrom soulful, even
tender ensemble passages to passionate solos by three or
four players simultaneouslyall 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 Gillespies 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
theres an instrumental color only an Ellingtonian
could loveor find a place for).
These performances sound like a Mingus
sessionpassionate, 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