Randy Weston African Rhythms Sextet:The Storyteller
It's almost fifty years since pianist/composer Randy Weston first played in Africa and he has returned many times sincethree times alone this year, 2010absorbing the endless rhythms and colors of the mother continent. Perhaps more than any of his contemporaries Weston has delved into the African roots of jazz, extolling the beauty and richness of African culture and making the connection between past and present. The Storyteller, a wonderfully intimate live recording, is the first African Rhythms quintet (plus guest drummer Lewis Nash) recording since Live in St. Lucia (Image Entertainment, 2003), and is poignant for being the last recording of trombonist Benny Powell, who passed away in June after 27 years cooking up the blues in Weston's ensemble.
The set opens with a solo piano piece dedicated to Afro-Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo, who played a major role in founding the roots of Latin jazz alongside trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie in the 1940s. It is, however, the spirit of pianist Thelonious Monk that sings loud. Weston was one of the first pianists back in the 1950s to be shaped by Monk's sound, and here he builds on the simplest of melodies with a vocabulary of elegance and dissonance. Big, low chords and bass notes splash loudly among light, right-hand figurines, trills, echoes of stride and knotty patterns which resolve themselves into gently flowing phrases of refinement and lyricismit's a hypnotic narrative.
There's a more overt Afro-Cuban vibe to "African Sunrise," commissioned for the Chicago Jazz Festival of 1984 in tribute to Dizzy Gillespie and the Machito Orchestra. Alongside Gillespie and pianist Ahmad Jamal, Weston has been one of the few jazz leaders to consistently employ African and Afro-Cuban percussion in his small ensembles, and percussionist Neil Clarke and the ever versatile Nash swing the music mightily after a thrilling, escalating percussive intro. Saxophonist T.K. Blue's long, snaking solo reaches ecstatic heights, while bassist Alex Blake and Powell hold a grooving bottom end. Weston encourages the ensemble in probing, understated fashion and under his baton the sextet cooks like Duke Ellington's 1940's band.
A seductive solo piano piece, "Tehuti," and a wonderfully percussive, funky bass solo from Blake bookend the 14-minute "Jus' Blues." The three segments constitute "The African Cookbook Suite" and provide another delightful slice of Ellingtonia. Growling trombone, soaring saxophone, tight ensemble playing and vibrant percussion which rises and falls in waves are underpinned by Weston's understated, cajoling playing. Powell's blues solo is a model of the power of phrasing over virtuosity, and in general his playing throughout The Storyteller belies his 80 years and declining health.
For the guts of 40 years Weston turned to arranger Melba Liston to give shape to his musical ideas, and her tremendous experience in the bands of Gillespie, Gerald Wilson, Count Basie, Dexter Gordon and Billie Holiday has undoubtedly left its mark on Weston, whose stylish, vibrant arrangements succeed in making a six-piece combo sing like a big-band.
In his autobiography African Rhythms (Duke University Press, 2010) Weston relates how "Caravan"the Juan Tizol/Irving Mills/Ellington tunewas the first African song he heard, and it may have had a profound effect on Weston as the slow, methodical gait of the rhythm on "The Shrine" and the exotic melody conjure up a desert caravan. T.K. Blue brings a lovely singing flute to the mix and Powell's trombone purrs in slow swing. Weston's solo is nicely weighted, and his jangling, rippling motifs have an almost elegiac feel to them. This highly atmospheric number fades softly like the last rays of the sun at day's end and whispering chimes and ghostly cymbal conjure shimmering mirage imagery.
The driving rhythms of "Loose Wig" provide the framework for Weston to explore the full range of the keys, combining plunging bass chords with rapid bursts in the higher registers. The song first appeared on The Modern Art of Jazz (Dawn, 1956) when Weston's ears were open to Monk and it is no surprise that more than a hint of Monk's personality resides in Weston's playing, though this arrangement is rhythmically more dynamic than the original.
Two Weston perennials round out the set. His signature tune, "Hi-Fly," is here completely rejigged and slowed down to become a gently bluesy ballad, although the coda, "Fly-Hi," brings the track full circle to its mid-tempo buoyancy of half a century ago, with a lilting Latin flavor for good measure. The final number and the only non-original, "Love the Mystery of," written by influential Ghanaian drummer Guy Warren, features low chants and sweet flute in the company of cantering percussion.
The Storyteller is one of Weston's most satisfying recordings in a long and distinguished career and a fitting testament to the artistry of Benny Powell, gone to join the ancestors.
Tracks: Chano Pozo; African Sunrise; The African Cookbook Suite: Tehuti, Jus' Blues, The Bridge; The Shrine; Loose Wig; Wig Loose; Hi Fly; Fly Hi; Love, The Mystery Of.
Personnel: Randy Weston: piano; Benny Powell: trombone; T.K. Blue: saxophone, flute; Alex Blake: bass; Neil Clarke: African percussion; Lewis Nash: drums.