Monday, November 19, 2018

"El Congo Valiente" - The Kenton-Richards Collaborations

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Of the five genius big band composers and arrangers who emerged in full bloom in die 1950s — Gil Evans, Shorty Rogers, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Holman and Johnny Richards — Richards is the forgotten one. When Richards is remembered, it is for his works for Stan Kenton and not for the recordings of his own bands. So it is hoped that the recordings at hand [Mosaic Select #17 - Johnny Richards] — the earliest of which were recorded 50 years ago — help to remedy this neglect. It is inconceivable that music so brilliant has been out of circulation for so long.”
- Todd Selbert, insert notes to Mosaic Select #17 - Johnny Richards

“From the first moment I played with Stan and what little I exchanged with him, I knew him as a true pioneer and champion of music making. The world knows of his innovations and popularity, but little of the man's true depth as a creator. In the development of art forms throughout history, there are various stages and periods of innovation. Kenton was a milestone. He can be counted as a pillar that helped support the arches of lesser lights.”
- George Gaber, timpanist [Dr. William Lee, Stan Kenton: Artistry in Rhythm, p. 219]

Unlike many big band leaders to whom arrangements were brought, played through with maybe some editing here and there and then assigned to the band’s book, Stan Kenton actually collaborated with the many arrangers who provided his band’s charts over the years.

Perhaps this is because, unlike many other big band leaders, he was his band’s first arranger. Stan was dissimilar to Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman and a host of other outstanding leader-soloists, in that, while he was a capable instrumentalist as a pianist, Stan’s primary forte was always his skill as an arranger.

Not surprisingly, then, through its almost forty years of existence, the Kenton band was sometimes referred to through Stan’s interactive collaborations with Joe Coccia, Pete Rugolo, Bill Russo, Bill Holman, Bob Graettinger, Johnny Richards, Lennie Niehaus, Bill Mathieu, Dee Barton, Hank Levy, and many others.

I am especially fond of the Kenton-Richards collaborations and Cuban Fire! has remained a particular favorite of mine since I first heard it a year or so after it was issued.

By way of background, in the chapter entitled Fuego Cubano (1956) from his definitive biography Stan Kenton This Is An Orchestra! [Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 2010], Michael Sparke writes:

“On March 4, 1956, the band with its full complement left New York aboard RMS Queen Elizabeth, bound for its second European tour. But this time the first destination was Britain, following successful negotiations with the Union for a reciprocal tour of America by Ted Heath and His Music. Kenton's debut concert on English soil was at 2 p.m. on March 11, in London's vast Royal Albert Hall, the atmosphere electric as the capacity crowd greeted Stan's first-ever appearance leading his orchestra before a British audience in their homeland.

The English jazz "establishment" was uniformly anti-Kenton, and everything he stood for, but individual writers and musicians could not disguise their excitement and admiration for the powerful precision and outstanding musicianship of this fine orchestra and its distinguished soloists.

The program consisted of a mixture of older "classics" and the more recent Holman charts, including a brand new "Royal Blue" named especially for the UK tour, and one very fresh composition by Johnny Richards which really set the audience roaring (and 1 was one of them!) called "El Congo Valiente." Of the soloists, highest praise went to Perkins, Niehaus, and Fontana.

Kent Larsen sums up Stan's second European tour with a spirited reminiscence: "England was cold and rainy, we did 60 concerts in 33 days, we ate ham sandwiches until they came out of our ears, and we had a complete ball: the audiences were super! The Continent was just as hectic as regard to schedules, but it was a joy meeting and playing with so many wonderful musicians. The five days each way on the Queen Elizabeth were a thrill, just like a paid vacation. By the time we got back to the States, I'd spent more money than I earned, we found that Elvis was the biggest thing on records, and the band spent a week in New York recording Cuban Fire."
What Kenton hadn't explained was that "El Congo Valiente" was just one of a number of extended compositions Johnny Richards had written featuring the Latin-American idiom.

What Kenton didn't know at the time was that the complete Cuban Fire collection was destined to become the most musically popular and iconic album of his whole career. Stan's concept had been simple enough. Despite his enthusiasm for Latin rhythms, he'd often been chastised by Cuban musicians for not being sufficiently authentic in their use. Johnny Richards (family name Cascales) was Mexican by birth and spoke fluent Spanish, so Kenton commissioned John to spend time in New York with the Latin players and learn how to combine their genuine rhythms with North American jazz. "And then," Stan told Johnny, "I want you to create a Suite, but I want you to abide by all the rhythmic rules that those Latin guys have."

As painstakingly recorded for Capitol, Cuban Fire was an outstanding achievement of immense proportions. Not only did it kick-start Richards' career, leading to his becoming one of the most vital composers in modern jazz, the album also gave a significant boost to the Kenton orchestra, becoming that rare combination, a success in both artistic and commercial terms. Cuban Fire was music that reached a new stature and dimension. Highly dramatic—some would say grandiose—passages are tempered by periods of sheer beauty and repose: as on the opening "Fuego Cubano" which begins with a flurry of high-powered excitement and brooding menace, but soon relaxes under the calming influence of the main theme statement played by a Larsen-Noto duet.

Most memorable of the six dances is "El Congo Valiente," because of its distinctive theme, stated at the opening by French horns. The difficulties inherent in Richards' writing are well illustrated by "La Suerte de los Tontos," on which the horns have to start the piece "cold." There's a Wally Heider recording from the Macumba Club later in the year, on which the horns fluff the introduction four times, and don't get it right even on the last attempt. On another Macumba date Stan makes the horns repeat the intro because of clams, and ironically explains it's a difficult thing to play: "Because it's hard to understand the title—something about the Sweat of the Horns!" (Correct translation: "The Fortune of Fools.")

Richards makes liberal use of the band's complement of soloists on every movement of the Suite (which, incidentally, does not include "Tres Corazones," despite the liner notes to the CD release). All perform with vigor and passion, but my personal pick would go to Bill Perkins, despite stiff competition from Lucky Thompson, whom the band had picked up in Paris, and who would depart right after the recording. Perk's fine tone and ability to dovetail his ideas with John's music are beyond reproach. Throughout, Richards uses the soloists to develop his compositions rather than engage in free expression, and solo performers are compelled by the dynamics of the music to work within this controlled melodic framework. Doubtless many of the musicians would prefer the freedom of improvisation allowed by the Holman/Mulligan-type charts, but Richards had such command of the orchestra, and has composed melodies of such outstanding merit, he gained the respect and (sometimes grudging) admiration of everyone involved. Under Stan's leadership the band plays with great energy and flair: the battery of Latin percussion instruments added for the occasion complement but never overwhelm the orchestra, however crucial they are to the success of the Suite.

Mel Lewis explains: "Willie Rodriguez had organized a special rhythm section playing specific instruments that would go along with the South American rhythms that Johnny had researched before he wrote the music. Johnny had rehearsed them before we even got there, and now they had to learn to blend with a jazz drummer and tympani. Tremendous care and effort went into every aspect of the Cuban Fire recordings, which became one of the finest works of Johnny Richards with the Kenton band."[pp. 134-35; 138-39]

And in his notes to the Cuban Fire Capitol Jazz CD [CDP 7 96260 2], Ted Daryll offers this background to the evolution of “...the most musically popular and iconic album of … [Stan’s] whole career.”

“The band had set sail for New York from the port of Cherbourg, France on May 10th [1956]. The cruise home had allowed an exhausted group of musicians their first genuine opportunity to relax and re-charge since their opening concert on March 11th at London's Albert Hall. Now in Manhattan and beginning rehearsals for the Cuban Fire recordings, the bulk of the touring band remained intact. Inevitably, a few chairs would change but the rhythm section, key soloists, and the majority of the brass and reed players were still on board. That this group had had plenty of performance time in which to settle and age was indeed a welcomed element considering the anticipated challenges of the new Richards' scores that were awaiting it. One or two of the charts had actually been completed prior to the tour and were taken along and performed occasionally during it.

Kenton set up rehearsals in the ballroom of the since-deceased Riverside Hotel located on West 73rd Street. A room that boasted a Kenton prerequisite: resonant, natural wood acoustics. Richards had enlisted the aid of percussionist Willie Rodriguez and together they assembled and rehearsed a five-man Latin percussion unit (Rodriguez at the helm on bongos) to execute with authenticity the rhythms that Johnny had researched in South America. Mexico. Cuba and New York. Unknown to most, due to the guise of his professional surname, Johnny himself was of Latin heritage being born John Cascales in upstate New York on November 2. 1911. It is not difficult to speculate then that the Cuban Fire project may well have had a special and more personal significance than some of his earlier work. And indeed it did turn out to be the catalyst that would project Johnny Richards into prominence as both a gifted jazz orchestrator/ composer and soon-to-be bandleader.

On May 22, 1950 all factions were collected at the Capitol Records studios on West 46th Street where the first of seven titles, RECUERDOS, was recorded. The following day. FUEGO CUBANO. QUIEN SABE, and EL CONGO VALIENTE. LA SUERTE DE LOS TONTOS, LA QUERA BAILA and TRES CORAZONES (the little-known seventh dance from the suite that had been omitted from earlier issues due to time/space limitations) completed the sessions on May 24th. [Obviously, Ted has made the choice to include Tres Corazones in the Suite, so perhaps he was not aware of the Richards/Sparke/Venudor position on the matter when he wrote these notes.]

The success of the "Cuban Fire!" album can be gauged in part by the ascent of Johnny Richards' star immediately following its recording. Bethlehem Records, a leading independent jazz label of the period, suddenly offered Johnny an opportunity to record his first album as a leader. By August of the same year he had assembled a top shelf group of LA based musicians and was at Radio Recorders studios producing the memorable "Something Else" LP. (BCP 6011/6032 and reissued in 1984 by Discovery Records DS-895). Although only a "studio band," it became the archetype for a permanent working band that Johnny ultimately established in New York about late 1956/early 1957 and kept together on and off until as late as 1965...just three years prior to his untimely passing in 1968. The New York band can be heard on a minimum of three albums made during this period for Capitol. Roulette, and Coral Records.

In the almost 40 year history of the Kenton orchestra, an orchestra that had leaned long and heavy on things Latin, Cuban Fire! stands at the pinnacle of those many outings. It remains an extraordinary coupling of jazz orchestration/improvisation and the deeply felt rhythms of those near and distant cultures. Musicians aligned with the Latin jazz movement in this country continue to cite it as an influence and inspiration.

And in Stan Kenton: The Studio Sessions, Michael Sparke and Pete Venudor have this to say about the music on Cuban Fire “... which collectively by common consent are recognized as one of the most distinguished of the Kenton-Richards collaborations.”

Stan told us : "The reason we made CUBAN FIRE is interesting. We had recorded a lot of Afro-Cuban music, and a lot of the Latin guys around New York complained : 'It's wrong, you're not writing the music correctly.’  And I used to argue with them. I'd say : "Why do you have to have such rules about how you write Afro-Cuban music?” They'd say: 'Because there's a right way of doing things and a wrong way. Why don't you try to do something with good harmonic structures and good melodic lines and have it right rhythmically ?'

"So I told Johnny : 'I want you to go to New York and start hanging around with those guys, and study what it is that makes a thing authentic.' And I told Johnny : 'I want you to create a Suite, but I don't want you to write it unless you abide by all the rhythmic rules that those Latin guys have.' And it was easy for Johnny, because he spoke Spanish. So he did, he went to New York and hung around with those guys for two or three months, and then he started writing music which conformed with all the rhythmic rules that those Latin guys keep. It's different today, all that's been broken down, because the Latin guys have gotten into jazz, and the jazz guys have gotten into Latin, but CUBAN FIRE is completely authentic, the way it combines big-band jazz with genuine Latin-American rhythms."

The album was recorded a week after the band returned to the States from an exhausting two-month tour of Europe. EL CONGO VALIENTE had been performed to British audiences, and meanwhile Richards had been preparing in New York, as Mel Lewis explains : "We recorded CUBAN FIRE in the Ballroom of the Riverside Hotel in New York City on 73rd Street. Willie Rodriguez had organized with Johnny Richards a special rhythm section playing specific instruments that would go along with the South American rhythms that Johnny had researched before he wrote the music. Johnny had rehearsed with them before we even got there, and now they had to learn to blend with a jazz drummer, and we also used tympani. CUBAN FIRE turned out to be one of the finest works of Johnny Richards with the Kenton band."

A view echoed by Bill Perkins : "Tremendous care and effort was put into every aspect of the CUBAN FIRE recordings - perhaps the late Johnny Richards' crowning achievement. We spent many hours in the studio making sure everything was as perfect as we could possibly make it."

Though the discography lists six trumpets, only five play at any one time, with one man in reserve. Johnny Richards was present to help with direction, though Kenton conducted the orchestra during the sessions. Richards expert Jack Hartley says Johnny was adamant TRES CORAZONES (premiered on the "Music '55" TV show of August 9, 1955) was not intended as part of the Suite, though it has been included in the CD version. An unrecorded title, "Alma Pecadora", is headed "Cuban Fire Suite" according to the score held at North Texas University, and was presumably rejected as not up to the same standard as the other charts, which collectively by common consent are recognized as one of the most distinguished of the Kenton-Richards collaborations.”

In strictly Latin Jazz technical terms, the music on Cuban Fire! Breaks down this way:

FUEGO CUBANO (Cuban File) A commanding opening piece set against a bolero rhythm.

EL CONGO VALIENTE (Valiant Congo) An abierta, with exciting exchanges between the brass and rhythm.

RECUERDOS (Reminiscences) A slow, moody atmospheric creation, a guajira in rhythm.

QUIEN SABE (Who Knows) An attractive medium temp guaracha.

LA GUERA BAILA (The Fair One Dances) Afro rhythm, which Richards picked up observing dancers at weddings.

LA SUERTE DE LOS TONTOS (Fortune of Fools) This is a nanigo which continues the party atmosphere created in the previous title.

And in a fitting tribute to Stan Kenton’s always adventurous spirit, let’s close with this testimonial from George Gaber who played tympani on Cuban Fire! and who in 1960 went on to established the highly regarded percussion department at the University of Indiana School of Music:

“I played on Stan's Cuban Fire! album. Stan and I also met on campus when he had his jazz workshops back in the early '60s at Indiana University. It was at the jazz clinics that Johnny Richards suggested to Peter Erskine (later Stan's drummer) that he study with me. (Peter has gone on to the Maynard Ferguson band and to Weather Report.) Stan approved, and Peter followed me to summer clinics in Kentucky. Later, he came to study with me after he finished Interlochen High School.

From the first moment I played with Stan and what little I exchanged with him, I knew him as a true pioneer and champion of music making. The world knows of his innovations and popularity, but little of the man's true depth as a creator. In the development of art forms throughout history, there are various stages and periods of innovation. Kenton was a milestone. He can be counted as a pillar that helped support the arches of lesser lights.” [Dr. William Lee, Stan Kenton: Artistry in Rhythm, p. 219]

The following video montage features Johnny Richards "El Congo Valiente" as performed in concert by the Stan Kenton Orchestra, Balboa, CA, 9.2.1956 and set to the art of Wassily Kandinsky. Solos are by Lennie Niehaus, alto sax, Sam Noto, trumpet, Bill Perkins, tenor sax and Archie LeCoque, trombone.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

DEBUT - Julian Oliver Mazzariello

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Julian mostra un tocco leggero e un fraseggio con note tratteggiate; è molto bravo nel dispiegare lunghe e liriche imitazioni. Il modo di suonare di Julian non è forzato, scorre. Lui sa dove vuole andare nei suoi assoli e lui arriva lì in un modo che è pieno di colpi di scena interessanti.

Julian è un abile musicista, ma non sta cercando di impressionarti con la sua tecnica, anzi, è più interessato a fare musica. Il suo tono e il tocco creano una chiarezza cristallina al suono che induce dal pianoforte.

La redazione di JazzProfiles.

When Matteo Pagano, the owner-operator of Via Veneto Jazz, sent me a preview copy of the latest CD by pianist Julian Oliver Mazzariello, I was somewhat baffled by its title - DEBUT (Jando Music/ Via Veneto VVJ 125 – 8013358201250).,

I mean, wasn’t this the same Julian O. Mazzariello that I’d heard on recordings by tenor saxophonist Daniele Scannapieco, trumpeter Fabrizio Bosso, trombonist Enzo Pietropaoli and his Yatra band, soprano and alto saxophonist Stefano Di Battista, singer and songwriters Edoardo De Crescenzo and Fabio Concato and Jazz vocalist Maria Pia de Vito?

Much to my surprise, it turns out that the answer to the “Debut” riddle is that this is the first recording that Julian has made as a leader.

The Jando Music/Via Veneto Jazz media release approaches the puzzle and its resolution this way:

“How many albums do you have of Julian Oliver Mazzariello? Think about it. It’ll probably be difficult for you to answer. Perhaps you won’t be able to recall the precise number, but there’s definitely at least one in your music collection. What’s more, that elegant touch of his on the piano is unmistakable, instantly recognizable, not to mention his remarkable Anglo- Neapolitan name.

But the truth is you haven’t got any of Julian’s albums. That’s because, although Julian has performed in the bands of many of his colleagues, he remained undecided as to whether to step into the role of band leader until Debut.

I for one am delighted that Julian Oliver Mazzariello decided to make this maiden voyage CD on which he is joined by André Ceccarelli Drums and Rémy Vignolo on Double Bass because I find it especially satisfying to hear more of his playing as the lead voice instead of his more accustomed role as an accompanist.

As the The Jando Music/Via Veneto Jazz media release expresses it:

“So, finally we have the chance and opportunity to listen to Mazzariello in all his creative flair and compositional dynamism: groove, swing, refined technique; along a path of differing styles which he approaches with heightened awareness.”

Julian displays a light touch and a dotted eighth note phrasing that is very reminiscent of Cedar Walton and, like Cedar, he is very good at unfolding long, lyrical lines. Julian’s playing is not forced - it flows. He knows where he wants to go in his solos and he gets there in a manner that’s full of interesting twists and turns.

Julian is a skilled player, but he’s not trying to impress you with his technique, rather, he is more interested in using his considerable “chops” to make music. His tone and touch create a crystal clarity to the sound he induces from the piano.

Julian’s improvisations reflect a taste, phrasing and use of his technique that brings to mind the styles of Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, and Kenny Barron from the modernist tradition and, more recently, the approaches of Alan Broadbent, David Hazeltine, and Kenny Drew, Jr.

As he displays on Funky Chunks, Julian can get down ala Bobby Timmons, Wynton Kelly, and Joe Zawinul and play a mean groove, and yet, he’s equally at home with the introspective harmonies of Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner as is reflected on Dream Cycling [to my ears, there’s also a bit of Michel Petrucciani’s phrasing to be heard in the “tag” on this piece].

The nine selections that make up the music on Debut also provide a look at the compositional side of Julian O. Mazzariello and it’s a very rewarding one at that as he turns out to be a writer of intriguing melodies.

As always, drummer André Ceccarelli is his “Old Soul” self throughout the recording, wisely knowing what to play to keep the heartbeat of the music full of energy while also knowing how not to overplay. And in bassist Rémy Vignolo, Julian has found a companion who beautifully frames the chords, plays unison lines flawlessly and solos with authority .

On this their first musical trip together, Julian, André and Rémy Vignolo masterfully guide the listener through a voyage of discovery.

One can only hope that such sojourns will continue beyond this remarkable Debut.

Debut will be released on 14 December 2018 and you can preorder it through Forced Exposure by going here.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

John Scofield - COMBO 66!

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Multiple Grammy Award Winning Jazz Guitarist John Scofield Returns with New Album: Combo 66! - Released on Verve Records on September 28th

We received the following from Crossover Media and thought we’d share it with you. John has always been one of my favorite, especially when Bill Stewart is in the drum chair, and we are curious to hear Gerald Clayton as the latest member of John’s group on keyboards as he has always knocked me out on piano with the Clayton Brothers band.

A YouTube track from the recording is featured at the end of the text.

“Grammy Award-winning jazz guitarist, band leader and composer, John Scofield is set to release his new album, Combo 66, marking his 66th birthday, on September 28 via Verve Records. The album, which features long-time drummer Bill Stewart, bassist Vincente Archer and pianist/organist Gerald Clayton, combines jazz with genre-defying elements, allowing Scofield to find new modes of expression.

Scofield has been on a serious roll since 2015, when his release, Past Present, earned a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album. He followed the release with the 2016 album Country For Old Men, which earned him two Grammy Awards for both "Best Jazz Instrumental Album" and "Best Improvised Jazz Solo ("I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry")."

In 2017 Scofield joined forces with old pals Jack DeJohnette, Larry Grenadier and John Medeski for the rural New York jazz band of the ages, Hudson, the quartet romping the world from Boise to Berlin and back again.

John Scofield keeps his talent and his trusty Ibanez AS200 guitar burning brightly on Combo 66, which finds the New York native with a new quartet and fresh compositions in celebration of his 66th birthday.

"I wrote all new tunes for this record, Combo 66," Scofield notes from the road. "I called it that because I'm 66! And 66 is the coolest jazz number you can get because if you hit 66 you're doing ok. Remember all the great records from the 60s? Brasil 66. 'Route 66.' It hit me that it would be poetic to use that title."

Born of searing groove, soul-touching melody, and kinetic improvisation, Combo 66 swings effortlessly to the condor-like rhythms of drummer Bill Stewart, Scofield's percussionist since 1992s What We Do. Scofield chose upright bassist Vincente Archer of Robert Glasper's Trio when it came to bass rhapsodies and called upon 34-year-old organist/pianist Gerald Clayton, son of bassist John Clayton of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra for keys.

"Guitar and keyboard is not always the easiest match," Scofield says. "Because of its percussive nature, piano is very similar to the guitar. But Gerald has a beautiful touch and though he is quite modern, his touch reminds me of Hank Jones or Tommy Flanagan. And that really is a beautiful legato sound that works well with guitar. Even though he's got super roots in traditional jazz, he can do everything. I'm just thrilled to play with Gerald."

The album begins with a track called "Can't Dance" - we're not talking the Sinatra standard, but a late afternoon swinger imbued with a sense of urban danger. "It just has this kind of groove quality and since I can't dance, really, I thought I would dedicate it to myself," Scofield laughs.

"Combo Theme" recalls the spooky grandeur of a great Henry Mancini soundtrack melody, balanced by Scofield's wry guitar solo, the equivalent of a Hollywood noir thriller, while the track "Icons at the Fair" plays on chords and progressions of Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis.

"We really got some heat happening on this one," Scofield says of "Icons at the Fair." "Years ago, I did a record and a tour with Herbie Hancock, for his album, The New Standard. He had this arrangement of 'Scarborough Fair' and I really liked the chords. I used those chords and then wrote a melody which was reminiscent of a lick that Miles [Davis] used to play. So, between Herbie and Miles and Paul Simon's 'Scarborough Fair' I called this 'Icons at the Fair."

The conversational "Willa Jean" was titled for Scofield's granddaughter, followed by "Uncle Southern," a light-stepping ¾ dance which touches on his mother's Southern roots. "Dang Swing" is a swing tune with a bit country: a dab of the devil's music and "New Waltzo," melds waltz with rock.

Something he almost never does, "I'm Sleepin' In" is a ballad - a calming yet slightly mysterious number titled, as is most every track on Combo 66, by Scofield's wife, Susan Scofield.

"It's quiet and pensive, and I hope, sensitive," Scofield explains. "Susan's title seemed to reflect the feeling of the song. What's more sensitive than a human being when they're asleep?"

Combo 66 closes with the track "King of Belgium," dedicated to Belgian harmonica maestro, Toots Thielemans, a man of great humanity, and purportedly, a great sense of humor.

"If you can't have fun with the music, let's go home," Scofield says, alluding to his working credo. "I am so deadly serious about jazz, but the fact of the matter is jazz only works if you are relaxed and don't give a shit. If you try too hard it doesn't work. Humor really helps me to get to a better place with music."”

Friday, November 16, 2018

Randy Weston - Afrobeats - Gary Giddins

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles begins its retrospective on the musical career of pianist, composer and bandleader Randy Weston [1926 - 2018] with the following excerpt from Gary Giddins’ Vision of Jazz as it offers three important takeaways: [1] a concise analysis of the elements that make up Randy’s piano style, [2] a general overview of Weston’s recorded music and [3] a descriptive and informed view, by one of Jazz’s most distinguished critics, of the discography itself.

© -  Gary Giddins: copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission.

“In the educated European tradition, great composers mine their own ethnic backgrounds as a matter of course: Beethoven appropriates a drinking song, Liszt cavorts with gypsies, Bartok adapts the folk songs of Hungary and Ives those of America. And in the early decades of this century, many composers, including Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, and Milhaud, made a show of their demotic wit by borrowing from jazz. Copland opined that jazz's primary value was as source material, Paul Whiteman was praised for having made a lady of jazz by introducing Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, and Gershwin himself called jazz a "very powerful" American folk music. Now, however, jazz's favorite dictum is that it is American classical music — not an ethnic or folk foundation for art but the thing itself.

So the question arises: If jazz is so cultivated, how does it explore its own roots? One obvious answer is via the songwriting fellowship that sprang from Tin Pan Alley. The irony here — predominantly white songwriters viewed as a kind of folk source (if you can imagine Jerome Kern as folk) for black performers — is bizarre, given who gets the money. A more obvious answer is via the blues: the only musical form to develop in the United States, a product of the African American experience, an apparently bottomless reservoir of inspiration for jazz musicians.

Even so, blues in jazz is primarily structural, not emotive. Those occasions when jazz embraces its rural roots, from Louis Armstrong recording with country shouters to Hannibal Peterson interpolating rural blues into his symphonic pageant, are rare. And although gospel is embedded in jazz's call-and-response, rarer still is the use of other African American folk musics, from work songs to spirituals (whose novelty appeal is surely one reason Charlie Haden's and Hank Jones's Steal Away found a receptive audience). White musicians are more likely to explore black musical traditions than their own. A few Jewish players have milked their ethnic backgrounds, from Benny Goodman's "And the Angels Sing" to John Zorn's band Masada, but a black musician, Don Byron, fully explored klezmer in a jazz context. In recent years, Asian American jazz musicians have begun to recover their own. But have Italian or Irish jazz musicians ever thought to exploit or interpret opera or reels as jazz?

The most wide-ranging and influential alliance between jazz and another musical culture is the Afro-Cuban movement, pioneered by Dizzy Gillespie and others in the '40s. Yet Latin jazz is an alloy, and while Chico O'Farrill is undoubtedly correct in observing that jazz influenced Cuba more than the reverse, it remains something of a third stream, that is, Latin clave and percussion aren't tangential influences, but partners in the mix. Another example of ethnic borrowing was Stan Getz's bossa nova. In a similar way, the worldbeat movement of the past twenty years has flavored jazz with a vast array of international fillips. In the early '70s, Ellington wrote a piece about the didgeridoo; a few years later, Craig Harris was playing one. For a while, tablas were almost as popular as congas, and there was an invasion of flutes and whistles and gourds, as well as kalimbas and bandoneons and other instruments with exotic names.

Not surprisingly, Africa exerted the most appeal by far. Always a part of jazz in song titles and vague musical references, it became a genuine musical influence, especially after its own pop music was successfully exported. Africa provided numerous allusions for jazz in the '20s, when it was widely considered the adventurer's last playground and Marcus Garvey's last hope. In New York, Ellington's Jungle Band indulged in faux Africanisms with growly brasses and sexy dances; in Paris, Josephine Baker, nude but for a string of bananas, incarnated the fabled lure of primitive eros. If Gillespie looked to Africa by way of Cuba in the '40s, the following decade produced real interest in the mother continent. Folkways and other companies released field recordings, musicologists traced the African influence on blues, and Afrocentric pride was reasserted.

Randy Weston once observed that it was Thelonious Monk who alerted him to the link. But it was Weston who developed it. And though he didn't travel to Nigeria until 1961, he was premeditating an African American alliance much earlier, before he began recording. Born in Brooklyn in 1926, he witnessed firsthand the development of jazz's Afro-Cuban nexus, which jibed with the Afro-Caribbean rhythms and melodies that flourished in his neighborhood and were part of his own heritage. In the mid-'40s, he forged lasting relationships with musicians who would appear on his recordings a decade later, including baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne, trumpeter Ray Copeland, and bassist Sam Gill, who made a serious study of African and Middle Eastern musics and, in the '50s, adopted the Muslim name Ahmed Abdul-Malik. In those apprenticeship years, Weston became fascinated with Monk, whom he heard with Coleman Hawkins. After he was discharged from the army in 1947, he visited Monk at his home and began to spend time with him, absorbing his spare and percussive attack and his devotion to the blues. Weston was the first pianist to craft a distinctive keyboard approach that derived from Monk.

He was also the first modern musician to record for Riverside Records. At his second Riverside session, in 1955, he debuted "Zulu," a percussive riff that might have been called "Thelonious," and in 1958, he followed with "Bantu Suite" and his breakthrough composition, "Little Niles," a piece actually written in 1952, in which an engaging jazz waltz is given a North African twist with an undulating figure that reappears in much of his music. Weston's '50s recordings for Riverside (expertly supported by Cecil Payne), Dawn, Jubilee, Metro, and United Artists are among the most charmingly anomalous in the postbop era. His penchant for triple time, pentatonic melodies, and a shrewdly rhythmic piano attack, heavy on bass, was established before he went to Africa and developed further during the course of two tours of Lagos, Nigeria, in 1961 and 1963, and a 1966 state department visit to fourteen African countries. By 1969, he had settled in Morocco, living in Rabat and Tangier, where he operated the African Rhythms Club. At the same time Weston's South African counterpart, Abdullah Ibrahim, was bringing Cape Town rhythms to the United States, Weston was bringing jazz to Africa.

Weston recorded sporadically after 1960, mostly for independent and obscure labels (when American musicians relocate abroad they become invisible no matter how widely acclaimed they were before the move); the theme of Africa remained resolute in his music. A couple of his pieces, "Hi-Fly" and "Little Niles," had become jazz standards, and Weston, who has always been community minded, performed in schools, libraries, and churches. A towering and congenial man, he offered workshops and musical lectures. But now he sought a larger musical canvas that combined jazz, poetry, African song, and rhythmic pageantry. The result, in 1960, was Uhuru Africa (Roulette), a collaboration with the poet Langston Hughes, employing a griot-like narrator, trained concert singers, a big band, and an international percussion section including Olatunji, Candido, Max Roach, and others. The work feels dated now, its exuberance ersatz, its ambition didactic, except when the jazz elements take over (as in "Kucheza Blues"). It proved most significant in affirming Weston's flair for large ensembles and his musical bond with arranger and trombonist Melba Liston. Liston had previously arranged a sextet and trombone choir for Weston, but Uhuru Africa was the first of their many big band projects (they revived it at a 1998 concert in Brooklyn). A former writer for Gerald Wilson and Dizzy Gillespie, she was ideally suited to expand Weston's engaging themes for a full complement of brasses and reeds.

A second, less flamboyant big band album, Music from the African Nations (Colpix, 1963, reissued as Highlife on Roulette), received less attention but is the more rewarding work, and the more important compositionally: several pieces became standard in his repertory, including two by African composers (Bobby Benson's "Niger Mambo" and Guy Warren's "The Mystery of Love") and his own "Congolese Children" and "Blues to Africa." Liston's seductively dissonant arrangements are layered over buoyant rhythms that were way ahead of their time and sound surprisingly fashionable today. Weston's anchoring piano is well recorded, and the soloists, especially the great tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin, are less forced and more forceful than those on Uhuru Africa. Still, it stirred little interest. A year later a frustrated Weston went into the studio on his own and self-produced an irresistible album, The Randy Weston Sextet; finding little interest in the industry, he created a mailorder label, Bakton, to release it. With excellent playing by Ray Copeland and the urgently distinctive Ervin, the band offers defining performances of two signature Weston themes, "Berkshire Blues" and "African Cookbook," and engendered enough enthusiasm for the Monterey Jazz Festival to book the sextet plus Cecil Payne in 1966.

Weston's career should have taken off; instead, he took off for Africa, a timely flight considering the dark days that lay ahead for jazz as the rock juggernaut flattened even its most celebrated musicians. During the next eight years, he recorded hardly at all: two 1965 sessions (solo and trio) were released by Arista Freedom in 1977; the 1966 Monterey set was not issued until Verve bought the tape in 1996. The occasional albums he recorded in Europe had titles like Afro-Blues and Randy Weston's African Rhythm, as did most of his new compositions. After six years, he returned to the United States and enjoyed an improbable hit with Blue Moses (CTI), a funky big band compromise, arranged by the meretricious Don Sebesky with Weston on electric piano. He returned to form in 1973 with Tanjah (Polydor), reuniting with Liston, resurrecting "Hi-Fly" and "Little Miles," and introducing notable new pieces, including "Tanjah" and "Sweet Meat," the latter featuring altoist Norris Turney. An Ellingtonian flavor is palpable not only in the specifics — Turney's appearance, Jon Faddis' high-strung, high-note trumpet, the undulating melodies — but in the broader achievement of tackling and extending what Ellington coyly described as the Afro-Eurasion eclipse.

Again his career should have taken off, but while Tanjah enjoyed respectable sales, Weston's big band projects were put on hold for the next fifteen years while he recorded almost exclusively as a piano soloist, mostly for exceedingly obscure labels (Cora, Arc), until 1987, when he and David Murray attained a meeting of minds on The Healers (Black Saint). Two years later he was signed by Antilles/Verve, and for the first time in two decades he came fully alive as a recording artist, making up for the lost time with one or more releases a year throughout the '90s. These records are among his best and they represent a remarkable accomplishment: the crafting of a Brooklyn-Moroccan connection that is now as natural as any idiom in contemporary jazz.

In 1989, he recorded three volumes of "portraits" with a quartet (piano, bass, two percussionists). The subjects are Ellington, Monk, and himself, and taken together they acknowledge his primary influences and illuminate what he has made of them; on the Monk especially, he manages to be radical and reverent at the same time, though there are passages where the extra percussion sounds more like a gratuitous overlay than an integral component. Two enormously satisfying albums with Melba Liston led to the brilliant small band, African Rhythms, which is a culmination of everything he has achieved. The Spirits of Our Ancestors (1991) introduces the musicians who would make African Rhythms one of the most exciting touring bands of the day: the seasoned trombonist Benny Powell and tenor saxophonist Billy Harper and Weston's prize discoveries, alto saxophonist Talib Kibwe and bassist Alex Blake. Once again he recycles his repertory, salvaging "Blue Moses" from the fusion era and refashioning "The Healers," "African Cookbook," and others.

Weston never made a more blithely entertaining record than Volcano Blues (1993), on which he and Liston finally share equal billing. (Jazz arrangers, like Hollywood screenwriters, get only as much respect as they can wrangle. Benny Goodman's tributes to Fletcher Henderson were unusual in their day; Gil Evans never did split a marquee with Miles Davis until he was dead.) With a cast ranging from veteran Los Angeles tenor saxophonist and composer Teddy Edwards (who is masterful on a definitive trio performance of Guy Warren's "Mystery of Love") to urban blues singer and guitarist Johnny Copeland (on a revival of Basie's "Harvard Blues"), Weston presides over a chameleonic celebration of the twelve-bar sonnet that provokes and amuses and deepens with every hearing. But Volcano Blues could only exist as a record. Saga is an accurate reflection of the African Rhythms septet Weston debuted in New York in 1995.

Coming after its rousing predecessor, Saga may seem relatively staid, but its power emanates from the casualness of its virtuoso cultural blend. The balance between ensemble — arranged by musical director Talib Kibwe — and soloists is riveting and the rhythm section flawless, with guest Billy Higgins on drums, Neil Clarke on percussion, and the remarkable bassist Alex Blake, who pushes the beat with robust double-stops. Weston's piano is at the center, binding all the elements, and his playing is imbued with an unmistakable sense of delight. As usual, many of the compositions are old, reworked to suit this band and these rhythms.

Unlike a good many Afrocentric musicians, Weston never changed his name, and a similar lack of camouflage graces his musical borrowings. Some of his rhythms are so familiar one doesn't necessarily think of them as African, and that may be his point: a link exists, the family is more closely settled than previously thought. Nor does he fold in African instruments or chanting. In short, he hasn't gone native; he's taken what he can use to amplify his own music. That consists chiefly of African rhythms that lend a vivacious spark to jazz rhythms without overpowering them. On Saga, Weston plays in three, four, five, six, and eight — Africa accommodates him.

"Loose Wig" originated as a trio on the 1956 LP The Art of Modern Jazz (Dawn) and is given a ravishing face-lift in the 1995 septet version, with an extended bridge and unison scooped notes; its rhythms are heightened at every turn by Blake, who has developed a strumming/ slapping/plucking technique that rocks the ensemble, and Billy Harper plays with impregnable authority. The classic swinging poise of "Saucer Eyes," a better-known piece from the '50s, is now underpinned by carnival rhythms and unfolds as a saxophone battle. One of Weston's most attractive melodies, "Tangier Bay," was a memorable piano solo on Blues to Africa (Arista Freedom, 1974); with Kibwe playing the seductive forty-bar theme over a jubilant vamp, it is completely refurbished. Perhaps the most impressive revision of all is the piano treatment (he's recorded it at least twice before) of "Lagos," in which Weston works in and out of rubato with unswerving equilibrium, lending the piece a rare and stately enchantment. More recent pieces include "F.E.W. Blues," a piano-trombone dialogue with an introduction that leads you to expect an old-fashioned blues, though Benny Powell and Weston use altered changes and textural devices to circumvent every expectation, and "The Three Pyramids and the Sphinx," a piano-bass duet with a strong, piquant melody.

Not everything is equally successful, but Saga is a formidable addition to a canon that, after more than forty years, is still subject to neglect. At New York's Iridium, with slightly altered personnel, Weston played to a full and eager house, yet he often seems an outsider, showing up in clubs sporadically, whether he is domiciled in Brooklyn or Morocco. Perhaps his most distinctive quality also undermines his appeal and that is his temperance. Weston's powerful hands relish the ringing of overtones between notes. Like Monk, he plays rests. Saga is a beautiful example of his restraint. Colorful, melodic, rhythmic, it borrows merely the seasonings of ethnicity to define Randy Weston's own archetypes.”