Randy Weston’s African Rhythms

2010 has proven to be a special year for Randy Weston for many reasons. It marks the 50th anniversary of the recording of his landmark LP, Uhuru Afrika—a spectacular four-part suite composed by Weston, arranged by Melba Liston with lyrics by the great poet, Langston Hughes.

The Uhuru session not only brought together musicians from Africa and the African Diaspora, but the LP lead the way in reconnecting jazz to the African continent and charting a new path for modern music—a path which Weston has pioneered with devotion his whole life.

This year is further distinguished by the debut of African Rhythms: The Autobiography of Randy Weston, a highly anticipated memoir composed by Randy Weston, arranged by Willard Jenkins, and published by Duke University Press. In this moving account, Weston breaks new ground by giving a powerful, honest self-portrait of his musical and spiritual journey in the world in a volume thankfully devoid of the sensationalist fare of sex, drugs, and drama typically included in such works.


In a sad counterpoint, 2010 also came to be the year that trombonist Benny Powell, a great musician, great educator and Randy’s long-time friend and musical collaborator, joined the ancestors. For over a quarter century, Powell anchored Weston’s often one-man brass section; his big tone and melodic phrasing rendered every one of his solos exquisite works of art. This incredible recording preserves Powell’s final song forever, indelibly demonstrating his essential contribution to Weston’s sound through the years.

The release of The Storyteller documents two other 2010 landmarks: it is Weston’s first recording with drumming phenom Lewis Nash, documenting an association that goes back to 1998 when Weston performed his composition “African Sunrise” at the Chicago Jazz Festival. They reunited again eight years ago for the premiere of Weston’s “Ancient Future Suite” at Jazz at Lincoln Center. The Storyteller is also the first CD with the whole African Rhythms ensemble since the release of Spirit! The Power of Music, ten years ago. Spirit!, performed live with the Gnawa master musicians from Tangier and Marrakech, is a hard act to follow. Those of us lucky enough to be there that night witnessed an unforgettable performance. Amazingly, the pure beauty and spiritual energy that took over Brooklyn’s Lafayette Presbyterian Church that evening in September 1999, was clearly matched at this Live at Dizzy’s Club Coca- Cola date. Weston’s regular quintet, fueled by additional rhythms from Lewis Nash, is simply on fire.

Randy employs his 84 years of wisdom and experience but plays with the agility and imagination of a 24 year old. At times his grand piano sounds like a kalimba, and then a few measures later he is making thunder in the bass clef, while his right hand dances briskly along the upper register. The rest of the band is characteristically brilliant: The music is tight, daring, majestic and enduring.

The Storyteller, in musical counterpoint to Weston’s African Rhythms memoir, rhythmically and melodically recounts an amazing career spanning nearly seven decades, dating back to his first Brooklyn gigs in 1942 with Spencer’s Hard Rockers and his early R&B stints with Bull Moose Jackson and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. Although the compositions included here represent but a fraction of his complete oeuvre, each song in this flowing program tells its own tale of Weston’s life and work.

Weston opens with a beautiful solo piano meditation dedicated to the incomparable Chano Pozo, the African-Cuban percussionist/composer whose collaboration with Dizzy Gillespie in the late 1940s changed the shape of jazz. “When I heard Chano Pozo with that modern orchestra,” Weston reflected, “for me it was complete because it was like going back to Africa… From that point on I started working with hand drums in my bands.” In fact, during the early 1950s Weston hired the great Cuban drummer, Candido, who had joined Gillespie’s band after Pozo was tragically killed in1948. The music’s introspective quality evokes the spiritual side of Pozo—an initiate of the Abakuá Society (a sacred society in Cuba by way of Southern Nigeria) who sang prayers in Yoruba.

The ensemble continues the Afro-Cuban theme with “African Sunrise” (Amanecer Africano), a Weston classic originally commissioned for the 1984 Chicago Jazz Festival in tribute to Dizzy Gillespie and his rich association with the Machito Orchestra. Arranged by Melba Liston, Weston’s long-time collaborator and former Gillespie band-member, “African Sunrise” debuted with a star-studded band that included the Machito Orchestra, Art Blakey and Dizzy himself. Curiously, almost seven years passed before Weston recorded “African Sunrise,” but to everyone’s surprise Dizzy was able to join the band for one incredible twenty minute take. “Thi s was already a very special occasion,” Weston recounts in his memoir, “because Melba did the arrangements and she was in the studio that day, so it was a reunion between these two old friends.”

As the band wails away on “African Sunrise,” one feels the presence of Dizzy’s spirit in the room named after him. T. K. Blue pays homage by quoting Gillespie classics such as “Manteca” and “A Night in Tunisia,” not to mention a few lines from Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House”—a tune Dizzy and Bird made famous. Neil Clarke and Lewis Nash mesh perfectly, providing authentic Afro-Cuban rhythms, and Benny Powell brings out Gillespie’s romantic side as he caresses his way through the song’s lovely bridge.

“The African Cookbook Suite” elaborates on another Weston classic. First recorded in 1964 with Booker Ervin (tenor), Ray Copeland (trumpet), Vishnu Wood (bass), Lenny McBrowne (drums), and percussionists Big Black and Sir Harold Murray, “The African Cookbook” grew out of Weston’s travels to Nigeria (1961 and 1963), and his deep immersion in traditional and popular music across the continent. As Weston recalls in his memoir, “The melody evokes North Africa and the rhythms come from all over Africa. I knew the rhythms were African, of course, but I didn’t realize how universally African they were until the 1967 tour when Africans in nearly every country we visited claimed the rhythms in Cookbook as their own.

“The African Cookbook Suite” builds on the foundation of the original version, but is divided into three distinct movements. The first movement, “Tehuti,” is named after the ancient Egyptian deity of wisdom and knowledge, who, legend has it, brought forth the cosmos through the sheer power of his voice. Weston’s solo piano, in turn, evokes the powerful voice of Tehuti. The second movement, “Jus’ Blues,” opens with the familiar “African Cookbook” theme and then segues into a soulful vamp featuring a gut-wrenching, bluesy solo by Benny Powell. A walking encyclopedia of black music, Powell blows a century of music into that two-minute trombone solo. The title also pays homage to the Memphis-based “Jus’ Blues Foundation,” which honored Weston this year with the “Presidents Award” in recognition of his “outstanding
contributions to blues and jazz”—another milestone in the Year of Randy Weston. The honor is well deserved; Weston is one of the greatest living interpreters and composers of the blues, having penned dozens of original blues pieces during his career.

“The Bridge” features Alex Blake, who completes the suite with an extraordinary solo for bass and voice. Like Randy’s father, the late Mr. Frank Weston, Blake hails from Panama—a land full of Caribbean descendants whose forefathers migrated there to build the canal bridging the Atlantic and the Pacific. Blake grew up on Afro-Panamanian music, the cultural bridge between North and South America, as well as Africa and the Western hemisphere. In keeping with this spirit of the original “African Cookbook,” Blake unites all of Africa and the Diaspora together through his modern double bass which, in his hands, becomes a traditional drum, an Egyptian oud, a Moroccan hag ’houge, and an oldschool “gut bucket,” thus forming a bridge between Tehuti and the Blues—a single line, as sturdy as the bridge on his bass.

“The Shrine” is one of Weston’s most recent compositions. First recorded on Khepera in 1998, Weston was seventyone when he wrote “The Shrine”—an age when most musicians are willing to rest on their laurels rather than compose new work. In Weston’s words, “The Shrine represents all the places of worship, regardless of religion, particularly of African people.” But this magnificent, mysterious composition is less about a place than a mindset, a sense of what it means to be one with the Creator. The last time I heard the band perform “The Shrine” was at Powell’s home-going at St. Peter’s church in Manhattan. It was then I realized that Weston had written a modern-day spiritual.

By contrast, the secular and humorous “Loose Wig” is one of Weston’s earliest compositions. Written in the mid- 1950s, back when he used to spend his summers in the Berkshires at the Lenox School of Jazz with great scholars such as Marshall Stearns and Willis James, “Loose Wig” first appeared on his 1956 LP The Modern Art of Jazz with bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik and Willie Jones on drums. One hears in the tune’s chromatic progressions, dissonant intervals, and sense of humor the influence of Thelonious Monk. “A loose wig — that’s a nice way of saying someone’s insane,” explains Randy. The tune might be a bit Monkish, but there is no mistaking Weston’s own unique compositional voice. Hearing it fifty-four years later, now played over up-tempo high life rhythms, “Loose Wig” is as fresh as ever. “Wig Loose,” which builds on the rhythmic energy of its melodic counterpart, is a two-and-a-half minute display of virtuoso piano over galloping tempos set by the rhythm section. I can’t imagine anyone at Dizzy’s Club sitting still during this number!——

“Hi Fly,” which made its recording debut at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958 with Jamil Nasser on bass and Wilbert G. T. Hogan on the drums, proved to be Weston’s first bona fide “hit.” Although the title was a kind of tongue-in-cheek commentary on his 6’ 7” frame, it also referenced an exciting period in his life when his apartment on 13th Street in Manhattan became an important gathering place for musicians and a source of artistic stimulation and political engagement. (Trombonist and arranger Melba Liston was one of those musicians. In 1958, they began a musical collaboration that would last almost forty years.) As Weston himself acknowledged, the song’s unique accents “may have come from a rhythm I heard in African drumming.” Whatever the source, “Hi Fly” was immediately embraced by the jazz world. Cannonball Adderley made it a regular part of his repertoire and made an iconic recording of it at the Blackhawk in San Francisco in 1959. Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Art Farmer and Benny Golson recorded it the following year, and by 1961 the vocal group Lambert, Hendricks and Ross put lyrics to it. Soon everyone was playing “Hi Fly,” from Eric Dolphy and Jaki Byard, to Lionel Hampton and Mel Torme! Weston himself has always kept it in his repertoire, and yet he makes every rendition of “Hi Fly” sound like a new original. Just listen to how, on this date, the band transforms this one time medium tempo romp into a lush romantic ballad. But then the very next track, “Fly Hi,” brings us back to the song’s roots. The band picks up the tempo and cleverly turns the tune’s famous “shout chorus” into an autonomous piece of music�—and as the title suggests, they take off for the heavens, fueled by Neil Clarke’s driving Afro-Cuban rhythms.

Weston closes, as he always does with “Love, the Mystery Of,” composed by the late Ghanaian drummer Guy Warren (Kofi Ghanaba). A staple in Weston’s repertoire for nearly half a century, “Love, The Mystery Of” was written for two African-American dancers who performed with Warren at the African Room in Manhattan. It tells the story of a young maiden and a hunter drawn together by the mysterious power of love, but for Weston the piece evokes the mysterious power of music. It is a modern-day spiritual in his hands, and fittingly he ends the set with the song and a sermon:

“You know, we try to capture the spirits of the ancients, because they had the secrets of rhythm and sound, and how they knew their music is really a healing, spiritual force.
And when you write music, you can feel good, you can go home and rest and imagine beautiful things.”

And when you listen to this recording, you will feel good, imagine beautiful things, and thank Mr. Weston for five decades of healing music.

— Robin D. G. Kelley, August 2010

The StorytellerRandy Weston
“African Sunrise” (mp3)
from “The Storyteller”
(Motema Music)

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