Randy Weston African Rhythms Sextet:The Storyteller

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Randy Weston African Rhythms Sextet

The Storyteller

Motema Records

2010

It's almost fifty years since pianist/composer Randy Weston first played in Africa and he has returned many times since—three times alone this year, 2010—absorbing 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
Lewis Nash
Lewis Nash
b.1958
drums
) recording since Live in St. Lucia (Image Entertainment, 2003), and is poignant for being the last recording of trombonist Benny Powell
Benny Powell
Benny Powell
1930 - 2010
trombone
, 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
Chano Pozo
Chano Pozo
1915 - 1948
congas
, who played a major role in founding the roots of Latin jazz alongside trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
trumpet
in the 1940s. It is, however, the spirit of pianist Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
piano
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 lyricism—it'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
Ahmad Jamal
Ahmad Jamal
b.1930
piano
, 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
T.K. Blue
T.K. Blue

saxophone
's long, snaking solo reaches ecstatic heights, while bassist Alex Blake
Alex Blake
Alex Blake
b.1951
bass
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
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
'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
Melba Liston
b.1926
trombone
to give shape to his musical ideas, and her tremendous experience in the bands of Gillespie, Gerald Wilson
Gerald Wilson
Gerald Wilson
1918 - 2014
composer/conductor
, Count Basie
Count Basie
Count Basie
1904 - 1984
piano
, Dexter Gordon
Dexter Gordon
Dexter Gordon
1923 - 1990
sax, tenor
and Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
1915 - 1959
vocalist
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
Juan Tizol
Juan Tizol
1900 - 1984
trombone
/Irving Mills/Ellington tune—was 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.

Record Label: Motema Music


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