Randy Weston continues to be a vibrant and creative force in jazz, so much so that it’s sometimes easy to forget that he’s been at it for over five decades. While his early work often isn’t as readily available as the material he’s done more recently much of it slowly making it back into print. This disc from Prestige combines some of Weston’s first recordings into a single, convenient package and well worth investigating. While there is audible tape hiss across all of the tracks, the sonic scratches do little to diminish the immediacy of the music and Weston’s piano is always at the forefront and crisply articulate.
The mood throughout is largely consumed by Monkish bent behind the keys but with less angularity, softer edges and a broad lyricism. Blakey relies on bombast in his opening salvo for “Sweet Sue,” but later tempers his attack, even dusting off his brushes on quietly thoughtful “Solemn Meditation” Gill savors several solo choruses on this the lengthiest of the disc’s tracks as well. “Again” is also taken at soporific speed with Blakey whisking a light soufflé rhythm against Weston’s gradual exploratory surgery of the melody. “Zulu” is more aggressive rhythmically speaking, but Blakey manages to tastefully rein in his more muscular urges while still generating a propulsive clip on cymbals.
The next five tunes dispense with sidemen leaving Weston in a solitary setting and well equipped to deal with the seclusion. Ranging through four standards and a single original his improvisations are a beautiful blend of playful ivory dexterity and heart-on-sleeve emotion with an emphasis on slow, deliberately paced tempos. There are moments as on sections of “We’ll Be Together Again” where his contemplative approach could easily be mistaken for hesitancy, but each protracted pause between phrases gives way to a fresh stream of ideas and dispels such doubts.
Piano/bass duets were a relative rarity when the third session on this disc was committed to tape, Ellington’s duets with Blanton being one of the few other instances. Focusing solely on a program of Cole Porter songs Gill and Weston commence to swing and the pianist’s stabbing chords on “What Is This Thing Called Love” announce a distinct shift in mood from the earlier delicacy of the solo pieces. The Monkish elements come into particularly startling play on off-kilter reading of “Night and Day” where Gill even breaks out his bow briefly. A gorgeous and highly ingenious dissection of “In the Still of the Night” follows with Gill providing walking anchor for Weston’s myriad musings. All three sessions visit an artist in his formative stages, but considering everything Weston’s accomplished in his distinguished career since, these sides are made all the more valuable and illuminating.