Randy Weston is in his Seventies, and Khepera
is a mature recapitulation of his lifelong musical concerns. His playing is as strong as ever, as individualistic and yet redolent of Ellington and Monk as ever; his compositions are as tightly focused and yet as variegated as ever.
The playing is superb. Weston's piano breathes as one with a core trio of the phenomenal Alex Blake (best seen live) on bass and Victor Lewis on drums. They're joined by Chief Bey (vocals, Ashiko drums), Neil Clark (percussion), Talib Kibwe (alto saxophone, flute), Benny Powell (trombone), Pharoah Sanders (tenor and soprano saxophones) and Min Xiao Fen (pipa, gong).
The musical landscape of Khepera is familiar to anyone who has listened to Weston's music from the Sixties - the days of African Uhuru/Highlife - through the towering Spirits of Our Ancestors, and down to the present day. Yet Khepera also introduces a new element from farther East. Chief Bey is here, but Min Xiao Fen is too, taking center stage mid-disc on "The Shang". The liner notes make a claim that China was originally inhabited by blacks; whatever the merits of Weston's historical case, he brings the musical strains of China and Africa (not to mention 52nd Street) together gracefully on this disc.
There are wider concerns yet. While Khepera harks back to Spirits of Our Ancestors in many ways, including the instrumentation and loping African percussion of many of the tracks, the new disc is somewhat less serene. The first track, "Creation," gives Pharoah Sanders his first but by no means his only chance to explore the outer limits of the tenor saxophone to an extent he has done only rarely since the Sixties. The 3 minutes 58 seconds of this track may be trying to be a soundtrack to the first just-under-four-minutes of creation. In any case, they situate this disc as a cosmic statement as well as a new step of Weston's ongoing musical adventure.
Powell and Sanders duel and dialogue at the beginning of "Anu Anu" and keep the sparks flying throughout. Sanders takes every opportunity to play with the outrageous fire he brought to John Coltrane's quintet in 1965 and 1966; Weston, however, fits his catharses into richly percussive settings that are well-constructed to take the heat. Don't think Sanders burns everlastingly, however: "Prayer Blues" contains a wonderful example of the burnished lyricism of his latter-day playing. It's also a treat to hear Sanders on soprano, which he plays relatively infrequently. His ability to make the straight horn sound like an exotic oriental reed fits in well with the zeitgeist here.
Powell hasn't lost a step either. He invests these pieces with the sliding trombone ethic of pre-bebop, and sounds extremely good paired next to Sanders' impassioned cries.
Khepera is, in sum, a feast of Weston's compositional skills and his playing, as well as that of these other master musicians. He spans so many worlds (and galaxies) with such ease at this point in his career that every recorded message from him should be savored. Don't miss it.