by Piotr Michalowski
The modern jazz piano tradition has a number of strands. Most common is the lineage of Bud Powell, who so spectacularly adopted the fleet language of bebop to the keyboard. Others, such as Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols, followed different paths, combining the rhythmic and harmonic developments of the late 1940s with older influences, taking their cues from blues, stride, and other styles. Those who found inspiration in Monk encountered a particular dilemma: how to work out a personal style in the idiom without simply mimicking his work. Among those who tackled this challenge, the premier seat must be awarded to Randy Weston.
Weston grew up in New York, where Monk befriended him, and by 1954, when he recorded his first album, it was clear that he was working on developing an original voice. Although he began by recording standards, he soon began to demonstrate his highly original writing skills, and some of his earliest compositions, such as "Pam's Waltz," "Little Niles," and "Hi-Fly," have become jazz classics. In 1955 he recorded African Sunrise, a most unusual album incorporating traditional African rhythmic and melodic elements. This release also teamed him up with the prodigious arranging talents of Melba Liston. The African connection has been part of his life to this day, and the collaboration with Liston lasted to her death in 1999.
In 1961 Weston visited Nigeria, and after other visits to the continent, he moved to Morocco. He stayed for six years and has returned there often over the years. His African experiences helped the pianist to develop further an idiosyncratic style that blended modern jazz with musical elements from different parts of the continent. He even recorded an album with the Splendid Master Gnawa Musicians of Morocco, but all of this never eroded his love of American jazz, and he has continued to explore his own works, as well as those of Monk, Ellington, and other great composers.
Weston has an international following, and
even if his kind of music is not as popular in this country as it should be, he has had the backing of a major recording label, Verve, something many jazz musicians lacked. In the 1990s he used it to good advantage, releasing a series of adventurous large-group recordings in arrangements by Liston. Not content to mine his brand of American-African fusion, he went farther and incorporated Chinese musical elements on his 1998 release Khepera.
It is impossible to tour with such large numbers of musicians, and for the last few years Weston has been performing in a trio with bassist Alex Blake and percussionist Neil Clarke. The trio setting is ideal for Weston's music, and over the years these musicians have developed a marvelous rapport. They are at the Bird of Paradise on Friday and Saturday, September 19 and 20, as part of the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival.
[Originally published in September, 2003.]