Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Randy Weston's African Rhythms Quintet

Randy Weston is one of the first and foremost American artists to convincingly incorporate African sounds into the jazz vocabulary. Wait a minute, you might think, African sounds and rhythms have been around in jazz for a long time. Well, so has Randy Weston. The concert at New York’s Jazz Standard club I heard on April 8th, 2010, was part of the weeklong 84th birthday celebration of the maestro. The last time I had heard Weston live was during his 80th birthday celebration at the same venue.

Although jazz has its roots in Africa, it is a quintessentially American invention. The roots were dug up a long time ago, replanted in the soil of the new continent, and cross fertilized with implants from many other traditions. True, band leaders and composers like the great Duke Ellington inserted African influences into their music, like the Duke’s 'Black and Tan Fantasy.' But this was not African music. The real exotic influences from Africa and the Middle East were really introduced only by men like Randy Weston and Yusef Lateef starting in the 1950s.

The big man—Randy Weston stands 2.03 metres (6ft8) tall—came on stage and sat behind the grand piano. The solo introduction soon led to a slow blues in 3/4 tempo in which his long-time band, African Rhythms Quintet, joined, all five musicians donning white African Muslim style caps. The crisp-toned alto saxophone of TK Blue took the lead in stating the theme of the tune and continued with a lively solo. The band’s rhythm section differs from the average jazz combo as it does not include a regular drum kit. Instead, Neil Clarke sat behind three large congas surrounded with cymbals and other percussion instruments. Another feature that makes the rhythm section distinctive is the presence of Alex Blake, another long-term Weston collaborator whose work on the double bass is just unique. In a world full of amazing bass players, I am not aware of anyone else quite like Alex Blake. In these hands, the slow tune soon developed a tension that forced me to sit on the edge of my high bar stool.

Following the alto solo, Randy Weston himself began a solo using distinctly North African tonalities. He was on firm ground, having studied the region’s music for the past half a century. The atmosphere was ripe with Saharan winds as Weston hit the keys carefully choosing the notes using a scale that contained the telltale 1.5 step intervals. As the tension further increased, Blake and Clarke would alternate the slow tempo with sudden bursts of double time.

Sitting down on a low stool and hanging onto the fretboard high above his head, Blake picked the strings with the four fingers of his right hand. He slapped the thick strings and beat the big instrument as if it were a flamenco guitar. At the times I’ve seen him perform, I’ve always feared that any time one or more of his fingertips would just be severed and fly across the room.

The second tune, 'Saucer Eyes,' also started with Mr. Weston’s solo piano introduction. This time it displayed clear ragtime influences, as the leader launched into some mean stride piano. Like all real music reformers, Randy Weston is deeply aware of the history of jazz and stands firmly on the shoulders of his predecessors. The song turned more into a conventional jazz tune, with Neil Clarke playing the role of a conventional drummer with a cymbal ride above the congas. Alex Blake slapped his bass irreverently in the up-tempo piece. The tune also gave the opportunity to the trombonist, Benny Powell, to join in and to show his chops. Again, TK Blue took a solo, his clear alto soaring with references to well-known classics such as 'Take the A Train' and 'St. Thomas.'

Randy Weston was born in Brooklyn in 1926. He is a New Yorker who grew up listening to American piano jazz à la Fats Waller and Duke Ellington (he even recorded their songs in the 1950s) and, later, Thelonius Monk. You can still hear this tradition clearly in his playing.

But his adventurous mind led him to explore other musical styles. At the end of World War II, Weston was sent to the Pacific Theatre where he served as staff sergeant in the Philippines and Okinawa. This experience exposed him to Asian music, which in these archipelagos has a particular flavour and rhythm. In the late-1950s, he started exploring the integration of African musical forms into jazz. Already at that time he created a number of highly original and to my ear extremely successful fusion records, such as Uhuru Afrika and Highlife celebrating the newly independent African states. During those years, Randy Weston travelled to West Africa, visiting countries such as Nigeria and Ghana to study their music and culture.

In fact, Randy Weston clearly sees the connection between jazz and its African roots. According to him, there is no contradiction between the tribal traditions found in the villages of West Africa and the urban culture of New York. This is demonstrated, for example, by his masterful composition, 'African Village Bedford-Stuyvesant,' featured on the wonderful double LP The Spirits of Our Ancestors recorded in 1991. The album features a 9-piece jazz band amended with African percussion and instruments, such as the stringed genbri and karkaba metal castanets, all arranged by Weston’s long-time musical partner Melba Liston who regretfully passed away in 1999. The music benefits from guest appearances by two other great musicians who have sought to expand the geographical limits of expression, Dizzy Gillespie and Pharaoh Sanders.

Like all tunes that recent Thursday evening, the next one also started with the leader’s solo piano. Randy Weston again introduced new elements in his prelude to 'African Sunrise.' Playing a powerful bass with his left hand, Weston combined liberally traditional jazz elements with atonal quirks reminiscent of Monk. After the lengthy introduction, the trombone joined the piano in a low ostinato that evolved into a slow Latin tinged rhythm in 7/4. The alto again took the lead, backed by Blake’s bass and Clarke’s conga and maracas.

The next tune was a ballad featuring the horns. TK Blue’s alto was this time so old-fashioned lyrical that one could imagine sitting in a smoky Harlem jazz den of the 1940s. Alex Blake’s bass highlighted the big instrument’s amazing melodic and percussive possibilities in the right hands.

My first introduction to Randy Weston’s music was his 1972 album Blue Moses. I remember as a young schoolboy visiting the NK record store in Stockholm with my mother and choosing this album based on the intriguing concept that the cover and the names of the tunes conveyed. I also recognized the sidemen listed on the jacket. They included both established veterans, like Freddie Hubbard and Ron Carter, as well as rising stars of the calibre of Billy Cobham and Grover Washington, Jr. Perhaps most importantly, the cover informed me that the group included Hubert Laws, who was a great idol and inspiration to me as an aspiring flute player. While the record was a Creed Taylor production on his successful CTI label, there was nothing too sleek or superficial about it. The music was raw and its North African influences unapologetic. Don Sebesky's arrangements featured more instruments than most of jazz orchestras, including such unusual additions as oboe and the French horn.

Randy Weston himself played the Fender Rhodes throughout the record, which somewhat oddly did not distract from the genuineness of the music. On the contrary, the reverb of the Rhodes produced a haunting atmosphere in the rubato parts of the music against which the vocalist Madame Meddah could wail her Berber voice. At times when exotic rhythms took over, the Rhodes sounded more like a West African balaphone.

The interplay between Carter and Cobham is impeccable, the latter refraining from displaying his most showman-like pyrotechnics. The trumpet, tenor and—yes!—the flute all play inspired solos. Still today, the record holds a central place in my collection and, every time I listen to it, I get the goose bumps when, after a complex rhythmic element on the title track, Cobham cracks the rim of his snare drum indicating the beginning of the most swinging straight drive ever and Hubbard dives into a broad-sounded trumpet solo. Or when the electric piano intro of 'Night in Medina' turns into a compelling slow melody played by the horns, with Laws’ flute and percussionist Airto Moreira’s voice hovering mysteriously around it. Yes, indeed, Blue Moses is still just about the best record ever made.

A number of years ago, I was lucky to catch Randy Weston at the World Financial Centre in downtown Manhattan. That time he had brought with him a group of Gnawa musicians from Morocco to supplement the African Rhythms Quintet. The vast atrium with its evergreen winter garden and huge windows giving to the Hudson River and skylights allowing sunlight in from the blue sky was an appropriate location for the music that really should have been played outdoors. The Gnawa are a Moroccan ethnic group belonging to the Sufi Muslim sect known for their music that involves hypnotic rhythms, call-and-response vocals and string instruments.

The concert turned into a riot. The mood was so celebratory that Randy Weston himself, dressed in a flowing Berber gown and wearing a white North African cap, spent more time dancing with a big smile on his face to the music of the Gnawa than playing the piano. I remember that my wife Yoko and I went home completely exhilarated and exhausted, although it was only afternoon and no other stimulants had been involved apart from the music and the general joy.

Back at Jazz Standard, the final full piece the band played was another slow blues in 3/4 time, with Alex Blake producing rubbery glissandos on his bass. As the concert ended and the big man rose from his piano chair, TK Blue finally picked up his flute. Throughout the concert I had watched longingly at the flute and soprano saxophone that he had brought with him to the stage. Alas, he had until now chosen to focus on the alto. This was the first set in the series and I am sure he’d play more on the smaller winds later in the week. At least I was happy to hear the husky flute blow against the slow North African rhythm as the gentleman we had come to celebrate walked backstage.

I truly wish for many, many more happy birthdays to celebrate with the musical force and genius of Randy Weston.