Monday, October 7, 2013

Randy Weston: Hi-Fly, Little Niles and Africa [From The Archives]

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles is working on a large feature on vocalist Tierney Sutton that it plans to post tomorrow, October 8, 2013. In the meantime, we thought you might enjoy a visit with one of our favorite Jazz pianists.
© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

More observant listeners are impressed with Randy’s strong, virile attack, his steady beat and his melodic imagination; both in improvising and composing he seemed to show the influence of Thelonious Monk.
- Leonard Feather, Jazz author and critic

“I expect that in the decade and more ahead, Randy will become as recognized for his compositions as for his playing.”
- Nat Hentoff, Jazz author and critic, writing in 1957

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.
- Gary Giddins, Jazz author and critic

“You can have it. It’s not music that’s going to get any air time on my show.”

The speaker was a family friend who hosted a very successful AM radio program that primarily featured the music of popular singers like Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, Vic Damone, Rosemary Clooney or Patti Page; singers who sang the commercial hits of the day as arranged by Nelson Riddle, Billy May, Henry Mancini and a whole host of other, orchestrators.

Given the sterling reputation of his radio show, many distributors sent him sample copies of long-playing records, today known as “vinyl,” many of which contained music that was superfluous to his program.

His offer of a gift had to do with an LP that I was holding in my hands with music by the Randy Weston Trio and the Lem Winchester Quartet that was recorded one afternoon [July 5th] during the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival.

Entitled New Faces at Newport,  the album was on the obscure Metro Jazz label [E1005].

I had no idea who [pianist] Weston or [vibraphonist] Winchester were, but hey, free is free, especially at a time in my life when popping $5 bucks for a Jazz record was still a lot of money.

I was familiar with the rhythm section of Ray Santisi on piano, John Neves on bass and Jimmy Zitano who accompanied Winchester from a Herb Pomeroy’s Boston-based big band LP that I had in my “collection” so I first played Lem’s side of the LP leaving the tracks by Weston for a later listen.

The time allotted to the four tracks by Randy on this album is largely taken up by a long drum solo by G.T. Hogan on an “excerpt” from Weston’s Bantu Suite. I didn’t find the remainder of that suite until many years later, but the title was a portent of things to come as Randy was to become a major exponent and interpreter of African music for much of his later career.

When I did get around to a close listening of the other tracks by Randy Weston on that Metro Jazz LP, what struck me – to the point of fascination – was Randy’s original composition Hi-Fly. Melodically, it is little more than a ditty based on a repetition of fifths, but I found myself whistling or humming it for days.

I was also taken by Weston’s minimalist approach to piano playing. He seemed to frame the tune with thoughtful improvisations much like Jimmy Rowles or Duke Jordan or John Lewis, but his style was somehow very distinctive.

As Dick Katz describes it in his essay on Jazz pianists from the 1940’s and 1950’s in Bill Kirchner, ed., The Oxford Companion to Jazz:

“Like Thelonious Monk’s, Randy Weston’s piano style defies outright imitation. He takes elements of Monk, Ellington, and a little Bud Powell, and ingeniously melds them with aspects of his own intense interest in African cultures, particularly those of Morocco, Tangier and Nigeria. His compositions, like Monk’s, are intrinsically bound to his playing style. In addition to many waltzes, his Little Niles, Hi-Fly and African Cookbook are justly well-known.”

Dick’s comments about Randy and waltzes were a prelude to my next encounter with Weston’s music. At a time when unusual or “odd” time signatures began to have an wider impact on Jazz, one of the first Jazz waltzes I ever played on was Weston’s Little Niles.

And here again, I couldn’t seem to get the jaunty snippet of a melody that forms the theme to Little Niles out of my mind for weeks.

The Metro Jazz LP helped me to familiarize with some of Randy Weston’s music, but I never knew much about him in general nor about the body of work he produced largely due to the influence of African music [as noted in the comments Dick Katz’s comments].

Two, recent acquisitions helped remedy this deficiency. The first was being “gifted” a copy of Len Lyons’ masterful The Great Jazz Pianists: Speaking of Their Lives and Music [New York: DaCapo, 1989].

The following forms the introduction to a lengthy interview that Len conducted with Randy:

© -Len Lyons/DaCapo, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Randy Weston is an imposing, almost regal figure.

Large-limbed and graceful, he stands six feet seven inches tall. Wearing a dashiki and a colorful skullcap, he greeted me in his motel room overlooking San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf. During much of our interview he method­ically rubbed body oils into his hands, feet, and neck. Weston seems to glow with pride when he speaks of Africa, where he lived from 1967 to 1973 and operated a cultural exchange center for musicians called the African Rhythms Club.

More than any other jazz pianist, Weston incorporates African elements into his playing in an obvious way. He shifts meters frequently-between 4/4, 3/4, and less common metric patterns. He also uses the bass register of the piano as a kind of tonal drum. During a trio set the night before (with James Lean/, bass, and Ken Marshall, drums) Weston demonstrated an uncanny ability to establish driving, hypnotic rhythms by using only one or two chords-sometimes only one or two notes-per measure. He has perfected what Bill Evans called the rhythmic displacement of ideas. There were times he made the whole room sway to his personal beat.

Weston's exposure to African culture and its derivative music began in childhood. His father, born in Panama, was of Jamaican descent and operated a restaurant in Brooklyn, serving West Indian cuisine. Realizing that Randy would not learn African history at school, his father educated him in his heritage at home. The restaurant was frequented by jazz musicians, who ex­posed Randy to the music of New York during the rise of modern jazz. He remembers listening to Bud Powell, Duke Jordan, Art Tatum, Willie "the Lion" Smith, and Erroll Garner. His most important influence, evident from the degree of space, or silence, he leaves in his music, was Thelonious Monk.

Weston began his career at the unusually advanced age of twenty-three, and his first job was accompanying the blues singer Bull Moose Jackson. He then worked with saxophonist Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, trumpeter Kenny Dorham, and drummer Art Blakey. In the late fifties Weston met historian Marshall Stearns and toured with him on a lecture circuit, giving demonstra­tions of jazz piano styles. Weston became well known as a composer, especially of jazz waltzes like "Little Niles" and "Hi-Fly," which have become classics in the jazz repertoire. In I960 Weston composed "Uhuru Africa" for a big band and vocalist, with text provided by poet Langston Hughes. In 1967, following a State Department-sponsored tour of fourteen African countries, Weston moved to TangierMorocco, where he established the African Rhythms Club. In 1973 he moved to Paris. Since then he has done most of his playing in Europe and Africa.

Weston is very disturbed by the picture of Africa presented in America. "All we hear about are the problems of Africa," he said, "like wars, famines, and racial problems. That's what makes the news. But there are tremendous musical and cultural experiences there." His own African experience, he ex­plained, made him aware of spirituality, nature, and the historical role of the musician in African culture. "He was a communicator, whose task it was to spread knowledge of the traditions of the people. He was a healer, too; scien­tists in the West are just beginning to look into music as therapy. There is music for weddings, funerals, and virtually every aspect of life. In Africa today the musician is still an integral part of all community life."

Weston sees jazz piano as part of the black man's Africanization of Euro­pean instruments. "I would like to have been there when our people first came into contact with these instruments," he said. "Can you imagine the excite­ment, the freshness of the first encounter? To me, what Louis Armstrong did was fantastically modern, really avant-garde." My line of questioning began with the origins of jazz.”

The other source of my enlightenment about things Weston resulted from my acquisition of the limited edition 3-CD Mosaic Select Randy Weston boxed set.

A summation of Randy’s significance in Jazz and the contents of the boxed set is contained in these remarks by its producer, Michael Cuscuna.

“During the past 50 years, Randy Weston has created an outstanding and forward-thinking body of work as a composer, pianist and band leader. But before his association with French Verve, which began in 1989, his discography was scattered over dozens of American and small European labels and albums disappeared as quickly as others were released.

The six albums in this collection have all collided under EMI's ownership and represent some of his most important early sessions. Piano-a-la-Mode, made for Jubilee, is one of his best early piano trio albums. Little Niles was his first for a major label and focused on his considerable skills as composer. Live at the Five Spot featured an extraordinary guest in the person of [legendary tenor saxophonist] Coleman Hawkins. A first album for Roulette with Cecil Payne, Ron Carter and Roy Haynes has never been issued before. Uhuru Afrika and Highlife were among the first informed fusions of jazz and African music, made at a volatile time when newly independent nations were emerging in Africa on a regular basis.

Sadly, Randy's African-influenced work did not catch the cultural wave at the time. Abbey Lincoln recorded African Lady and Horace Parlan picked up on Kucheza Blues (see Mosaic MD5-197), but Uhuru Afrika went largely unnoticed and was a rare collectors' item within a few years of release. Stanley Turrentine recorded In Memory Of and Niger Mambo (see Mosaic MD5-212) soon after Highlife was released, but again that album failed to reach an audience among musicians or the public.

It is with great satisfaction that we make this delightful and important music available. Special thanks to Randy Weston, a man as elegant and gracious as he is talented, for sorting out many discographical questions such as the drummers on the Five Spot session. Incidentally, a third United Artists album featuring the music of Destry Ricks Again was an A & R man's attempt at commercial success that a then acquiescent Randy would rather forget. For that reason, it is not included here.


And the distinguished Jazz author Nat Hentoff had this to say about Randy and his music in these excerpts from his 1957 liner notes to Piano-a-la-Mode [Jubilee JGM 1060].

© -Nat Hentoff, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Randy Weston, 31, is evolving into a vigorously personal jazzman with spirited intelligence, and a large reservoir of what the young mainstreamers like Quincy Jones and Cannonball Adderley call soul.

Within the past year, Weston's career is also quickening. He's worked the Cafe Bohemia, several Sunday afternoon concerts at Birdland for Jazz Unlimited, Cy Coleman's Playroom, The Five Spot, and concerts at Town Hall and Loew's Sheridan presented by the Village Voice, the resiliently hip Greenwich Village weekly. He has also signed with the Columbia Lecture Bureau for the fall of 1957 and the spring of 1958 to present a series of jazz lecture-demonstrations at colleges and in auditoriums.

Weston, as articulate verbally as he is on piano, usually opens his lecture program with demonstrations of the roots of jazz — African rhythms, spirituals, boogie-woogie and the blues. The second half reflects his own modern approach, and invariably includes several of his originals.

Randy has become a jazz writer of growing distinction. He's written some 23 originals, and several of them, like the waltz, Little Niles, are being recorded and performed by a number of his contemporaries, including Gigi Gryce, Oscar Pettiford and George Shearing. Milt Jackson plans to record Randy's Pam's Waltz, and I expect that in the decade and more ahead, Randy will become as recognized for his compositions as for his playing.

Randy's attitude toward jazz is strongly involved with his love and respect for the traditions of the language. One of his three major influences is Duke Ellington. "The way he plays," Randy begins, "for one thing. He's not recognized too much as a pianist, but he's a fine one. He's very definite; he's not afraid to do what's in his mind; and his playing has that sound and drive he gets from his orchestra. And there's his feeling for change of pace; he can be wild and then become so subtle. The blues feeling he had his band have moves me so. The whole band has that blues sound and feeling, no matter what they're playing."

Art Tatum is a second influence, as he has to have been to almost every jazz pianist by virtue of his total command of the instrument. A third is Thelonious Monk. "When I first met Monk," says Randy, "I was more interested in Nat Cole and Eddie Heywood, who lived around the corner from me. I wasn't in a musical position to appreciate what Monk was doing. This was in 1944, and I heard Monk at the Down Beat with Coleman Hawkins. I had great respect for Hawkins, and I figured that if Hawkins had hired Monk, Monk must have something to say. I became so fascinated by him in time that I decided to meet and talk to him. There wasn't much at first in the way of conversation, but I'd go by his house, starting around 1947 and continuing intermittently for several years, and he'd play piano and I'd listen for three or four years. I really do feel Monk is a genius."

"If it's not a paradox," Randy adds, "Monk has a command of freedom. I never get the feeling of paper and notes in his work. There is a complete freedom in his work. It doesn't sound as if he's affected by barriers or conventions. Whatever he feels, he writes and plays; and yet he still keeps alive that old definite piano sound like Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. Monk inspired me in that he showed me you can stretch out and be yourself. Some people say he hasn't much technique as a pianist. Technique isn't important. It's the message you have that counts, especially in jazz. I once heard a piano player who could only play three or four chords, but when he was through, you knew emotionally he'd been there!

"As a writer, Monk can create a melody that sounds like no one else's and yet just seems to have flowed naturally from him. I can't verbalize how he does it; I don't think he can verbalize it either. I've never taken a formal lesson from him, but I've listened and talked to him a lot, and he's changed my whole conception. I remember one lesson he taught me especially well. There was some music going on at his house. I didn't care for it, and said so. Monk said nonchalantly but firmly, "You've got to listen to everybody and everything. Everybody has something to say."

"I've found that to be very true."

Here’s a video montage of images of Randy and some of the artwork from his many recordings which employs as its audio track the version of Hi-Fly from the 1958 Metro Jazz LP that he recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival with George Joyner on bass and G.T. Hogan on ddrums.

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