Art of Jazz Celebration 2008: The Ripple from Africa That Became an Ocean of Sound

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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But then we also heard why jazz is the music of hope... We heard "African Sunrise"
Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4

Ancient Future with Randy Weston at the Art of Jazz Celebration
Before he even sits down to play, Randy Weston fills a room... a venue if he has to. Then he pulls back the piano stool, stretches out his arms and the sounds of an Ancient Future fill every available space, push out the wall, climb embankments, rattle open windows, knock on every door in every available city to herald the music of the wisdom of the spirits! You can draw a direct line representing the art of the piano, from Ellington and through Monk to perhaps two or three pianists. Don Pullen is one and Cecil Taylor may be the other. But the linear spirit connection comes to a virtual stop where Randy Weston sits. And plays! No one musician appears to be in direct communion with the world of our ancestral spirits like Randy Weston is. He once said, so simply: "I thought about Osiris, when he was assigned to teach man about civilization and how he used music to do it..." This is what brought Weston to make his fabled recording, Ancient Future (Mutable, 2002).

On June 06, 2008, he returned to the Fermenting Cellar at the Distillery in Toronto, with his cohort Billy Harper, to give audiences another lesson in history... the history of the blues connecting all present with the origin of man. His music this night sought—as his always does—to be the very personification of Cheikh Anta Diop's Nations negres et culture... The African Origin of Civilization! Certainly it does when Randy Weston sits down to play his music. Weston, moved by Diop's de-construction of the origin of man, becomes the blue notes of the music as it communes with the spirits that he invokes... Not just Ellington and Monk, but Osiris and Ra... as Weston evinces such spirits as he commands the keyboard majestically—mostly down... way down the bass clef, but every so often, stretching his right arm and its gnarled fingers, to trill with a signature Weston figure at the far end of the treble clef... a host of angels fluttering the feathers of their proverbial wings!

Randy Weston is joined by Billy Harper, whose tenor saxophone—burnished black and gold—bursts into flaming tongues of music as he licks his lips, takes a deep breath and proceeds to assist Randy Weston in giving the audience a sagacious, if good-humored, lesson in the history of the music of the African- America. We hear why, without its African origins, without the blues of the ancient, contemporary music would never be the same. We hear it in the opening "Blues for Africa," when Billy Harper follows Weston's dense harmonic clusters with a raw-toned tenor solo, that stretches the music like a horizon being pushed back way beyond the depth of conventional perception. We hear layers of notes that dapple and dice Weston's melodic invention, dancing like nervous sprites at the dawn of civilization. We hear Blind Lemon as well as the children of the Great Nzambi Pungu, God to you and me! This is the African Dawn that spread its harmolodic light before the mind of Weston or Ornette could even conceive of sound on such a spectacular tonal palette!

With eyes wide shut, the Fermenting Cellar on this night became a cave in the fabled Egypt of the Pharaohs... the civilization to whom music was revealed... where a sonic brush, it has been said, dappled the strings of the lute... and colored some keys on the ancestor of the piano blue! Both Randy Weston and Billy Harper knew as much in their nerves and bones... Their music—from "Chalabati Blues" to "Berkshire Blues"—showed beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Blues was a revealed idiom... its secrets unraveling under the cascade of notes. Of skin burnt blinding black under a harsh sun and a harsher human history.

But then we also heard why jazz is the music of hope... We heard "African Sunrise" music that marks not just the dawn of civilization, but also how God revealed to Egypt a spirituality of voice and music which was to become the creative glue that bound the various eras of human history. We heard how 'Trane connected with this ancient spirituality and begat us A Love Supreme... We learnt as we heard music flowing from the fingers of Weston and Harper as they traded melodic phrases wrapped around in an interminable dance of Pharaohs and spirits... of tall ships and plantations, of wars and peace... hate and love... And if you closed your eyes on this day, you would find yourself not in the Cellar at all, but on a dance-floor somewhere in Tangiers, or Casablanca... in New Orleans or Kansas, in Greenwich Village, or 52nd Street... You would be at the mercy of Monk's interstellar rhythmic dance as he communed with our ancestors... You would be entranced by the growling notes in a cauldron... as it bubbled with potions and songs of "The Healers..." You would be transported by Billy Harper's bent notes as he traced music from 'Trane to Sanders, as he sewed a magic muslin of sheet music that wove blues with prayer, dance with the whoops of joy...

You would have heard it all in "Blue Moses" as Randy Weston and Billy Harper stretched... and danced their way through the chord changes on the earth's musical palette. And then they made their way through a tribute to Dizzy Gillespie and Machito that Weston premiered together with Dizzy... a song that wove the history of the blues into the history of African-American origins in a fabric that became the fluttering flag of all freedom-loving rhythmic dervishes; jazzmen who bounced and bleeped their way across the soundscape of the universe—from Africa and Cuba and the ancient Mediterranean of "The Song of Songs!"

Weston and Harper seemed oblivious to the expedition they were leading, as music became a seamless journey through the long warm night. From African Blues to Blues in his hometown of Berkshire, from the red earth of Nubia to the fertile grasslands of Yoruba... from the earth to interstellar space... It also became time to honor their musical ancestors—Ellington and Monk... as well as 'Trane, Shorter, Sanders and Ayler—and the music of the migrations that begat civilizations in Europe as well... Randy Weston and Billy Harper spent a precocious night recalling also the great music of Bartok and Satie... There was an oblique quote from Satie's Trois Gymnopedie that took your breath away as its notes skated away through the night.

When it came time to surface for air, hours later, Randy Weston and Billy Harper doffed their hats to Sonny Rollins, with a brilliantly de-constructed "St. Thomas." The spectacularly languid introduction picked up momentum as Weston and Harper traded harmonic invention, building the song as choruses of notes tumbled down from keyboard and reed... The song—as it is, already a tantalizing musical sketch that recalls the great etchings of Escher—with its maddening rhythmic twists towered like a magnificent edifice that appeared to meld art and science. The evening finally came down like a velvet curtain... An evening with two master musicians who gave us intimation that all would still be well with the world, if only we stopped and stared... And in their own way, also made a statement that the science of instrumentation would be nothing without the art of its protagonists... Something Jacob Bronowski once set out to expose and so successfully showed to be "The Ascent of Man!"

The evening of Day 2 began with Canada's Juno-Award nominated Elizabeth Sheppard displaying her chops at the Pure Spirits Stage—and showing why she so richly deserves the attention that she is getting today. And it ended with a rousing Afro-Cuban party, at the very venue that was graced by Randy Weston and Billy Harper's historic concert. As Luis Mario Ochoa and friends Salsa On Six turned up the heat of the summer's night to Fahrenheit 500... With timbales and congas, trumpet and saxophone and the irrepressible rhythms from across Guantanamo Bay... And night became day...

Photo Credit

R. Alan Dunlop

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