[29 March 2011]
2010 was a big year for Randy Weston, the wise and underrated jazz pianist. It marked the 50th anniversary of his landmark recording, Uhuru Afrika, arguably the first important attempt by an American jazz musician to deal with the music of that important continent in a genuine way. It also saw the publication of Weston’s autobiography, African Rhythms, which chronicles his fascinating and singular jazz life.
Weston’s latest recording is a fitting companion to his book and a fine successor to his other African-inspired recordings. The Storyteller was recorded in December of 2009 at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, the lovely small club inside the Jazz at Lincoln Center facility in New York. The show featured a healthy dose of Weston’s solo piano introductions, his longstanding African Rhythms working band, plus the drummer Lewis Nash. This is modern jazz grounded in and drenched through and through with the pulse of the continent that Weston always considered to be home.
In his autobiography, Weston writes movingly of the feeling he had the first time he traveled to Africa in 1961. As the plane moved over the continent, he was convinced that the engines started thrumming with a different rhythm. Weston would live in Africa for a number of years, after being raised by a father who taught the young man that pride in his African heritage was essential. Ultimately, his musical legacy is the infusion of specific African musical techniques into a body of jazz composition and performance.
The Storyteller is a pleasurable and profound demonstration of that legacy. The band is wonderful, particularly the rhythm section of Nash (playing with Weston here for the first time), Neil Clarke on various hand drums and African percussion, and bassist Alex Blake. Along with Weston’s daringly percussive piano work, this team creates a percolating swing that easily embodies both the elastic groove of American music and the polyrhythmic tension of African music. It is, to put things simply, a dramatic recital. It is the sound a musical personality on full display.
Many of the tunes here begin with a piano introduction, allowing Weston to display his still impressive mastery of bebop harmony and Thelonious Monk-inspired lyricism. Weston has never been an “out” player, and these solo sections are beautiful, but they feature a blunt attack and just enough dissonance to remind you that Weston plays, essentially, a percussion instrument. And when the band kicks in, most of the time, it is with a wide array of percussive strategies that ground this music in a rich rhythmic tradition.
The first two tracks are thick in Afro-Cuban groove. “Chano Pozo”, of course, is named for the great Cuban percussionist who played with Dizzy Gillespie in the 1940s and, essentially, invented Latin jazz. It acts as a solo piano introduction to “African Sunrise”, which allows alto player T.K. Blue to quote a series of Gillespie tunes (“Manteca”, “A Night in Tunisia” and others) that were the precursors to Weston’s own fascination with jazz derived from African and Afro-Cuban sources. Blue’s solo is built atop chanting from the rhythm section and Benny Powell’s expertly patterned trombone work. Powell’s own solo is lyrical and tonally beautiful, which leads to Weston, garrulous and thrilling. The patrons at Dizzy’s that night knew, as do we listening at home, that we’re in good hands.
Next up is Weston’s “African Cookbook Suite” in three parts; “Tehuti” is another piano solo that sets up the bass-line groove for “Jus Blues”. Clarke and Nash lock into a syncopated, sharp pattern of clattering clicks, with harmonies and melodies floating atop like elevated plains of sound. There is one repeated rhythmic groove for the horns as well, that grabs your ears firmly—everybody gets in on the action. “The Bridge” is a feature for Blake’s busy bass—plucking, strumming, and singing that works in unison with the melodic content or turns into a chant. This is a flat-out mile-a-minute track that resolves into a sleek piece of swing, like the band is taking you on a musical journey that winds up back home.
The more subtle tracks on The Storyteller are among the most effective. “The Shrine” is a sinuous minor melody set over a slow tempo. Blue plays flute with Powell harmonizing: muted, gorgeous. The flute solo is full of exotic flourishes, trills and growls, fluttering repetitions, then darting lines that slip beyond the harmony. Powell’s statement is throaty and low, with Nash and Clark splashing around him in waves. With Weston’s solo, the whole rhythm section seems to merge into one.
The Weston classic, “Hi Fly”, is taken at a slow tempo, the well-known intervallic melody implied rather than played by the horns. The band then mutates the tune into “Fly Hi”, which goes up-tempo and moves around a few elements of the melody into new spots. Randy Weston is now in his mid-‘80s, so how impressive is it that he is still in a playful mood, spinning variations on his old classics?
The crowd at Dizzy’s on the night The Storyteller was recorded seems fully to appreciate that Weston, though rarely listed in the ranks of the giants, is a unique treasure in jazz. More than most other second-generation modern jazz players, Weston forged his own sound and built a series of compositions around an original idea: to bring the music of Africa directly the jazz vocabulary. With a couple of Weston’s key collaborators such as arranger Melba Liston and, from this band, trombonist Benny Powell now passed on, now seems like a good time to dig Weston all over again, on his own terms. Read the book, learn his story, listen to his band.