“…a lifelong scholar of Africa, (Randy Weston’s) playing has always had a ring of the ancient in it; his percussive, resounding bass-clef chords are among the great pleasures in jazz piano.” - Ben Ratliff, The New York Times
For over five decades, pianist, composer, bandleader and NEA Jazz Master Randy Weston has enjoyed a distinguished career in music. With over 46 CDs as a leader, Weston has continued to perform his Africa-inspired jazz throughout the world and has been the recipient of many international awards and honors.
Motéma Music released Randy Weston’s new live album with his African Rhythms sextet, The Storyteller: Live At Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. The CD is a musical companion to Weston’s highly anticipated memoir, African Rhythms: The Autobiography of Randy Weston, a collaboration with Willard Jenkins and published by Duke University Press.
The Storyteller is Weston’s first recording with the whole African Rhythms ensemble since 1999′s Spirit! The Power of Music. Recorded live at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, the set features drummer Lewis Nash with members of Weston’s regular quintet: trombonist Benny Powell; alto saxophonist TK Blue; bassist Alex Blake; and percussionist Neil Clarke.
Additionally, the session is Weston’s final recording with long-time collaborator and friend, Benny Powell (who “joined the ancestors” in June, 2010). The Storyteller documents Powell’s final contribution to Weston’s sound. “Benny Powell represented the essence of the blues that is the foundation of our music,” Weston reflects. “Benny captured the sound of love and peace in his instrument.”
In the liner notes for The Storyteller, author and American culture and music historian Robin D.G. Kelley writes, “Weston employs his 84 years of wisdom and experience, but plays with the agility and imagination of a 24 year old. At times his grand piano sounds like a Kalimba (African “thumb piano”), and then a few measures later he is making thunder in the bass clef, while his right hand dances briskly along the upper register.”Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1926, Randy Weston didn’t have to travel far to hear the great jazz artists that were to shape his sound, such as Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and his idol, Coleman Hawkins. During the 1950s, when he gigged around New York with Cecil Payne and Kenny Dorham, he wrote many of his beloved tunes, such as “Little Niles,” “Pam’s Waltz,” “Saucer Eyes” and “Hi Fly.” His first recording as a leader was Cole Porter In A Modern Mood (1954, Riverside). His connections between African and American music is due in large part to his father, Frank Edward Weston, who told his son that he was “an African born in America.” In the late ’60s, Weston traveled throughout the continent of Africa to get a feel for each nation’s musical style. Settling in Morocco, he ran his African Rhythms Club there from 1969 to 1972.
Weston began incorporating African elements into his compositions, as heard on Uhuru Afrika, Highlife: Music From The New African Nations and African Cookbook. After a long stretch of infrequent recordings, he made quite an impact with The Spirits of Our Ancestors (1992), a 2-CD recording of new, expanded versions of his well-known pieces, featuring arrangements by Melba Liston, guests such as Gillespie and Pharoah Sanders, and an ensemble comprised of African musicians.
Kelley historically explains the eleven songs on The Storyteller in the following track by track excerpts referenced from the CD liner notes:
The opening track “Chano Pozo” is a solo piano dedication to the Afro-Cuban percussionist whose work with Dizzy Gillespie in the ’40s played a major role in the foundation of Latin jazz. The ensemble continues the Afro-Cuban vibe with “African Sunrise,” a Weston classic that was commissioned for the 1984 Chicago Jazz Festival in tribute to Gillespie and his rich association with the Machito Orchestra.
“The African Cookbook Suite” elaborates on another Weston classic. First recorded in 1964, the composition grew out of Weston’s travels to Nigeria in 1961 and 1963, and his deep immersion in traditional and popular music across the African continent. This version is based on the original, but is divided into three distinct movements: “Tehuti,” named after the ancient Egyptian deity of wisdom and knowledge; “Jus’ Blues,” a soulful blues that pays homage to the Memphis-based Jus’ Blues Foundation, “featuring a gut wrenching solo by Powell;” and “The Bridge,” featuring Alex Blake, with an extraordinary solo for bass and voice.
“The Shrine” is a recent Weston composition, first recorded on Khepera in 1998. Weston explains, “The Shrine represents all the places of worship, regardless of religion, particularly of African people.”
The chromatic and Monkish “Loose Wig” appeared on his 1956 LP The Modern Art of Jazz. “A loose wig – that’s a nice way of saying someone’s insane,” explains Weston in Kelley’s liner notes. “Wig Loose,” which builds on the rhythmic energy of its melodic counterpart, is a two-and-a-half minute display of virtuoso piano over galloping tempos set by the rhythm section.
Considered as Weston’s first bona fide hit, “Hi Fly” made its recording debut at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. A tongue-in-cheek commentary on his height (6’7″), it also refers to an exciting period in his life when his apartment on 13th Street in Manhattan became an important gathering place for musicians as well as a source of artistic stimulation and political engagement. As Weston himself acknowledged, the song’s unique accents may “have come from a rhythm I heard in African drumming.” A constant in his repertoire, the band transforms this one-time mid-tempo, happy-go- lucky romp into a lush romantic ballad. Then the very next track, “Fly Hi,” brings the song back to its roots.
Weston concludes The Storyteller set with “Love, The Mystery Of,” a composition written in 1958 by the late Ghanaian drummer Guy Warren (Kofi Ghanaba), about a young maiden and a hunter drawn together by the mysterious power of love. At the end of the set, Weston says: “You know, we try to capture the spirits of the ancients, because they had the secrets of rhythm and sound, and how they knew their music is really a healing, spiritual force. And when you write music, you can feel good, you can go home and rest and imagine beautiful things.”To encapsulate the overall experience of the recording, Weston remarks: “The Storyteller is about our lives, history and our creativity. Benny Powell was our spiritual voice, his trombone speaks, and we will miss him. Lewis Nash, Neil Clarke, TK Blue, Alex Blake, all are great musicians with a great respect for those before us: we are not a band, we are an African Rhythms Family.”