© - 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:  a concise analysis of the elements that make up Randy’s piano style,  a general overview of Weston’s recorded music and  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.”