Randy Weston African Rhythms
By Joy Childs
Sentinel Contributing Writer
When Randy Weston’s magnificent 6’7″ frame-clad in purple African attire from head to toe and wearing dark shades-first came into view on the small stage of the Lenart Auditorium of the Fowler Museum at UCLA this past weekend, his very presence suggested African royalty. And from the moment he sat down on the piano bench-i.e., before his two-set solo piano concert; the Q&A with fellow jazz pianist Mike Melvoin; and a book signing at the post-concert reception-his ‘highness’ essentially conducted a master class on the history of jazz and the history of Africa, which are also his stories.
After his introduction by the Friends of Jazz at UCLA (who were presenting him as part of their David L. Abell Memorial Jazz Salons), the 84-year-old Weston launched into his thesis, first proclaiming that “Africa is the richest place on earth . . . The music swings because the continent swings!”
Then he wove story after story about his earliest days in Brooklyn (by the way, his New York accent is still discernable); his travels, residences and performances in nearly 18 African countries; and his resettlement in Brooklyn in the last several years with his Senegalese wife of 10 years, Fatuous.
Beginning in the 1960s, Weston began incorporating African elements in his compositions and performances. In 1967, Weston went on a trip to Africa with a U.S. cultural delegation and fell so in love with Morocco that he decided to settle there. Of those halcyon days, Weston said:
“So when I went to Africa, I was like a little baby . . . People say, what are you talking about? You hear this music, they are totally in tune with nature. Because they visit with Mother Nature. When they go to make an instrument, they cut down a tree and they say a certain prayer to that tree because the spirit of that tree is in the instrument. And for me, without question, music is the highest form of Mother Nature. . . because only music could bring us together like this from different parts of the world, different genders . . . And I’m a musician but I tell you, I’m still learning, still trying to understand music.”
It was in Morocco that Weston became one of a handful of proponents of Gnawa (pronounced NAH-wah) music, eventually collaborating with Gnawa musicians, most notably on a two-CD recording from the early ’90s. In introducing his first piece of the evening, Weston explained that these people practice healing rituals, healing diseases by the use of colors:
“This is a piece I heard in Morocco by the Gnawa people. They were taken as slaves and they had to walk the Sahara desert. And just like our ancestors in this country, they created spiritual music. And they create music according to colors. Every human being has a color, every human being has a note, so when you become sick, they play certain rhythms based upon your color and your note to bring you back in tune ’cause they say when you’re sick, it means you’re out of tune with Mother Nature. So I’m going to play for you a song, an African spiritual, based on the color blue. This is ” ‘Blue Moses.’ “
It’s a piece that has become a jazz standard largely because of its emphasis on bluesy tonic notes and fifths. This time out, Weston slipped and slid through a variety of modes and moods, ever adding notes and chords on top of each other.
Weston’s second song featured a potpourri of his influences-especially Duke Ellington, but also Thelonious Monk and Art Tatum. Sometimes he played the melody in its original beauteous form but often than not, he shot through the melody so quickly that it was barely recognizable. All the pieces of all the songs, however, still worked together and were played trippingly off his fingertips.
After a 15-minute break, his second set turned into a suite homage to trombonist Melba Liston, with whom he began collaborating in the 1960s, and again in the early ’90s when she arranged his compositions on “The Spirits of Our Ancestors.”
Until last year, Weston had not performed in Los Angeles since 1966. Thankfully, with the recent publication of “African Rhythms: The Autobiography of Randy Weston” and the release of the “Randy Weston and His African Rhythms Sextet: The Storyteller. Live at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola” CD, the appreciative jazz musicians in the audience who came out to see him (including Phil Ranelin (trombone) and Harold Land Jr. (piano) won’t let that happen again.
When asked for their thoughts about Randy Weston, flutest James Newton remarked: “I would say that he is a true living treasure! And this [concert] is a mandate for artists to continue to push themselves and move forward. He has all of the tradition but he’s still moving forward and he’s playing things that are newer and fresher than a lot of people that are 3 times younger than him. Can I get an amen?”
Jacques Lesure (guitar): Amen, amen! . . . And his honor for the apprenticeship of this music. . . how he said he sat under Monk, and he listened to people. It’s very important that in order to go forward that you do understand where it came from. And he’s still at 85 years old honoring his ancestors, his predecessors that taught him. He’s still honoring Monk and Ellington as if he’s a kid!
LAS: And Eric Reed, what is your reaction?
Eric Reed (piano): I was just so blown away by how much power he played with at 85 years old. That blew my mind! . . . Like James was saying before, you can’t really move forward until you recognize that you have not arrived. And I would imagine even people like Art Tatum, Duke Ellington would have said the same thing-as great as they were, they always recognized there’s still a whole bunch more out there. We haven’t gone beyond Tatum yet. Not yet. I know I haven’t!
Few have. In the meantime, there’s an 84-year-old giant of a griot not to be missed the next time he’s in L.A.