Downbeat Review by Ted Panken
Down Beat Magazine
By Ted Panken
Randy Weston makes grand gestures behind the piano, he envelops the keyboard with his and virtuosi authority. And when he speaks, he makes, big statements : "Most of the music of the Western Hemisphere comes out of African traditional music."
For close to half a century, Weston has paid homage to: his ancestors here and abroad, illuminating African narratives and philosophy from a perspective drenched in jazz. "I try to tell stories through music, stories about our heritage, so people can get a deeper understanding of who we are," says Weston, a giant in physical form and spiritual weight, a humble scholar griot of magisterial bearing.
At 72, the 6-foot-7-inch Weston looks like he'd be equally at home invoking musical spirits and teaching basketball's power forwards the finer points of driving the baseline. But Weston leaves, the scoring to the experts namely, arranger Melba Liston and chooses to focus his energies on composing, performing, recording and deep, informed reflection.
Weston works closely with Melba Liston, a longtime friend and collaborator responsible for the evocative sounds of his large ensembles. Melba Liston arranged all of the material for the March recording of Weston's new CD, Khepera, a suite dedicated to Cheikh Anta Diop, progenitor of the thesis that world civilization has its origins in Africa., Weston performs "African Sunrise," another Melba Liston arrangement, in September at the Chicago Jazz Festival.
Weston thrives on big projects of historic proportions. He enjoys the challenge of playing multiple concerts in the same town; he rose to one such occasion as artist-in-residence at the 1995 Montreal Jazz Festival, where he appeared with a different group each night over five days. He gathers hordes of musicians together to perform his works, like he did this March for three nights at the Kennedy Center with the dynastic Master Gnawa Musicians from Morocco -Weston's creative muses of the last 30 years - plus his quintet. He recently received a commission from the Doris Duke Foundation to compose music for the singular choreographer Martha Clarke to be performed in the year 2000.
The scope of Weston's 1998 activities mirrors the progression of his roots-based, forward-thinking esthetic "seat I do is only an extension of the '20s and '30s, when due to segregation, it was a total black community of music and culture," he notes. "You didn't go the theater to listen to jazz. You listened to the whole black experience. A show might have the Duke Ellington big band, tap dancers, comedians, singers, vocal quartets. I cannot emphasize how important that was for me. My dad always told me, 'Africa is the past, the present and the future.' Which means you have to understand what your ancestors did. From my ancestors comes the truth. Music cannot lie."
Weston's ancestral piano tree is comprehensive; his comments reveal much about the antecedents of his sound. An orchestral approach to the 88 keys is fundamental to his concept reflecting an enduring passion for Art Tatum ("the master of masters") and other early piano heroes like Willie "the Lion" Smith, Luckey Roberts and Nat Cole-manifested in a dangerous left hand. He notes that Tatum incorporated the harmonic extensions that became integral within jazz after Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. 'Tatum was completely advanced in the '20s and '30s," Weston observes. "Most of the musicians who are credited with creating modern music listened to him. You can hear everybody when you hear Art Tatum.
"After Tatum," he continues, "it's Monk and Ellington." Their stark intervals and evocative timbres are the first principles of Weston's distinctive vocabulary. He phrases with a singular beat, dancing through idiomatic African rhythmic figures with exquisite timing, inflecting lines with touch ranging from hammer to caress. Like his mentors, he knows how to transform notes and sounds into memorable melodies that tell compelling tales, whether the vehicle is an elegant standard-form '50s classic with definite changes and clear rhythms like "Hi-Fly," "little Niles" and "Berkshire Blues," or a later African-influenced composition painting vivid pictures with more spatial, indefinite harmonies, like "In Memory Of," "Blue Moses" and "Chalabati Blues."
"I think Randy has reached a place where ideas transcend notes," his musical director, Talib Kibwe, marvels. "Everything he does musically is an expression of his life. We've done some tunes, even recently, where I'll ask him, 'Man, what changes did you play there?' He'll have to look at the piano to see what he's doing. It will be a very heavy altered chord, a chord that's very abstract with different inversions-flat fives and nines and sharp 11’s. But he's so beyond looking at music that way, it's just a sound to him.
There's a whole story behind the tunes. See, a lot of guys give you the music, run it down, and show you letter 'A' with some 16th-note triplets. It's analytical. Randy never does that. He'll show me a tune, and might say, 'OK this piece is called "Blue In Tunisia." This was my experience when I went to Tunisia in 1963.' He'll talk about a piece of music from that kind of perspective."
The teenage Weston first heard Monk on 52nd Street in a band led by Coleman Hawkins, his earliest idol. "I was looking for something on the piano anyhow," he recalls. "I grew up in Brooklyn with the great bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik, whose father was Sudanese. He also played the oud, and when we were kids he'd take me to Atlantic Avenue in downtown Brooklyn to hear musicians play the instruments of North Africa and the Middle East, instruments where you could play eighth tones, in between the notes. I would try to play like that on the piano, but Monk was already doing it. Monk brought the mystery back into music, a kind of magic, a way of saying you can play music beautiful by going this way. Music became universal.
"Ellington is the master. Though I listened to Duke's orchestra from the beginning, I didn't hear his piano much until later years. Like Monk, he was always creating new, wonderful sounds from the piano. His introductions, the things he could do in four to eight bars to bring in the band, were incredible. Nat 'King' Cole for me was utter beauty. His touch was fantastic, every note a jewel. And Count Basie was my very first influence, a master of space and a master of the blues, which is the essence of our music."
Gillespie showed Weston, already intimate with calypso, how to articulate stride piano and bebop tropes in African language. "Dizzy brought back the drum," says Weston. 'The hand drum was outlawed here, which is one reason why I think we put the drums into pianos and trumpets and trombones and the English language. Hearing Chano Pozo with Dizzy Gillespie's Orchestra in 1947 turned me around, and I've been working with hand drums ever since. Chano was Cuban, but you could hear pure Africa in his drum sound. It was a marriage, a complete circle. Dizzy used to come to Brooklyn a lot, and I had an opportunity to see him and listen to him. I learned so much. Dizzy was writing music about the ancient African empires, but he was such a great comedian that people didn't realize what he was doing."
Indirectly, Gillespie's responsible for Weston's fruitful partnership with Liston. "I went to hear Dizzy's orchestra at Birdland one night, and I saw Melba Liston playing trombone," he remembers. "I'd never seen a woman play a trombone before. She had an incredible, big sound, plus Dizzy featured one of her arrangements, 'My Reverie.' It was so deep and beautiful that when the band came off the bandstand I decided I wanted to say hello. I guess it was meant to be. When we collaborate, I can play a particular melody on the piano or give her a cassette, explain the stories, say which instrument I may want to feature, then she's got it. She can write something after that melody that sounds just like I wrote it. She is able to get inside what I want to do, very original, very fresh." Weston began playing professionally in 1949, making a career of his avocation. Trying to escape a New York atmosphere increasingly devastated by heroin, he spent the following summer cooking breakfast and cleaning rooms at a Berkshires resort. Fortuitously, he met the path-breaking jazz historian Marshall Stearns, who was giving lectures on jazz history. 'Marshall was the first critic I encountered who started out in West Africa rather than New Orleans,' Weston recalls. 'We became close, and he encouraged me to perform the history of jazz with him. He was a true jazz scholar with a pan-African concept-true in the sense that he did his homework. I stayed a few extra weeks at the end of that first summer when it was very quiet, sat at the piano, and that's when I composed 'Pam's Waltz' and 'Little Niles.' Throughout the '50s, I had a tremendous flow of musical ideas."
Already predisposed to African perspectives from his Garveyite father's admonitions, Weston in the '50s took advantage of a connection with friends who worked at the United Nations and met visiting officials from different African nations. "I'd always ask about the music," Weston remembers. "They might give me a tape or a book, and I slowly started to learn. That was the inspiration for Uhuru Africa. My father always told me to be around the best minds I could find, no matter what the subject matter. I found people who could construct a serious history of who we are and what we come from. People like Dr. Willis James, who specialized in field hollers. From that direct information, I was able to extract the similarities in what we do. There's always the emphasis on the differences in us, but I'm looking for the similar."
That credo was Weston's mantra on two apotheotic 10-day trips to Lagos, Nigeria, in 1961 and 1963, during which he discovered highlife music, met Nigerian drummer-guitarist club-owner Bobby Benson and played with young West African musicians, including Fela Ransome Kuti, then a trumpeter. (Weston celebrated the sojourn on 1963's Highlife and the self-produced 1964 classic African Cookbook.) In 1967, the State Department sent Weston's sextet, including drummer Ed Blackwell, to Africa for a three-month tour that turned into a six year residence in Tangier, Morocco, where Weston ran his own club, African Rhythms.
"I went on a spiritual trip back home,' Weston recalls. "I wanted to hear where I came from, why I play like I play, why we play music like we do. We went to about 18 countries, and wherever we went we asked to experience the traditional music of the people. Hearing the traditional music was like hearing jazz and blues and the black church all at the same time. All the music in Africa has a powerful spiritual base, coming from a respect for nature, for the Creator, with deep meanings and serious laws. There's no separation between the religious and the secular. There's a rhythm for everything that happens in fife; every rhythm tells a story. Despite slavery, despite leaving the continent for a few hundred years, we're still able to create other kinds of music in other environments because of that strong spiritual base, which is Mother Africa.'
Weaving stories within the framework of those diasporic cultural transformations is the heart of Weston's art, never more so than on Khepera. It took shape in the afterglow of Weston's 1985 Dakar encounter with Cheikh Anta Diop, the Senegalese historian / philosopher / linguist / chemist whose investigations into the African origins of ancient Egyptian and Ethiopian civilizations and the influence of Egypt on world culture had inspired Weston for years.
Khepera is kind of mystical, kind of magical," he muses. 'I don't know why it happened at this particular time. Maybe from meeting Cheikh Anta's family in Paris, and more people who knew him. He was a brilliant, warm, wonderful man. When I phoned and asked if I could visit, he answered, 'I know your music; come by and see me.' I was in total shock! I met him at his laboratory the next morning, and he spent an hour explaining his ideas. I had already read his books, so I was attracted to the man before I met him, but this sealed it".
You could say Weston's compositions and piano explorations have become meta-musical metaphors of a world view. That's true," he says. "And I understand my role better, I think.
After being in Africa, around traditional people like Gnawa people. I've absorbed a certain amount of African spirituality into the music, and stopped turning out a lot of things. I became more involved with trying to learn more, trying to play a certain way which I still haven't found."
When Weston extols Africa, to paraphrase Valerie Wilmer, it's as serious as his life. "Randy's musical side is one half of it, his spiritual side is the other half, and both halves are inseparable," says Benny Powell, Weston's trombonist for 15 years. "I think he's a brave man to stick by his convictions. He doesn't go by what's popular-he never did. His many years in Africa have changed his music. In European music, the rhythm supports the melody, but in African music the rhythm is predominant. Sometimes the Gnawa have been playing rhythms, and I've said to myself, 'Now, what is he going to put with that and make it come out tight?' In a few minutes, Randy's playing the perfect stuff. As he once said to me, 'B.P., I'm just trying to put the magic back.'"
Every Weston performance-whether in a nightclub, an elementary school auditorium, the Kennedy Center-addresses that element of ritual that imparts magic force to music. 'In Africa, traditional people will tell you that you've been chosen by the ancestors,' he explains. "In the West we tend to emphasize how great we are, this or that one is a great musician. But in Africa, playing well is only one part of the story. You have to be respected by the community, to be clean in mind and spirit if you play music, you may have to try to cure someone, and if you don't play the right note, if your heart is not in the right place, you can injure that person. African music is as old as Africa, which preceded Europe and Western civilization. The music began there, and it began as a way of thanking the Creator for the food, the drink, the tree that they cut down to make the drum out of.
It takes it on another level.'
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