In more than six decades of public performance, pianist Randy Weston has followed his own singular path. Never one of the more popular entertainers, he has, nevertheless, created a very personal musical approach that transcends any particular style. Weston was born and raised in Brooklyn, where he inhaled the sounds of swing and bebop, influenced as much by Count Basie and Duke Ellington as by modern jazz pianists, including his cousin Wynton Kelly. The man who impressed him most, however, was the idiosyncratic Thelonious Monk. Weston spent three years learning informally from him, and while he never directly imitated Monk’s inimitable approach to the piano, the relationship left a strong mark on Weston’s musical sensibilities.
Like Monk, Weston developed his playing and compositional skills in parallel fashion, and he also learned that the piano is not only a melodic and harmonic instrument but also a percussive one. Weston, like Monk, is a very big man, in whose hands the piano keyboard seems veritably to shrink. The title of one of his better-known compositions, “Hi-Fly,” apparently reflects his perspective, looking at the ivories down below.
In the late fifties and early sixties Weston led small groups, perhaps the best of which was a sextet that included the great saxophonist Booker Ervin. This combo, like his other ones, mainly played his own compositions and arrangements, some of which, like “Little Niles” and “Hi-Fly,” became jazz standards.
But then he traveled to North Africa, and this experience affected him so strongly that he returned there and stayed in the Moroccan town of Marrakesh for three years. Weston’s father had instilled in him a pride in his African ancestry; as a result, the pianist had long been interested in African music, history, and spirituality (as early as 1954, he composed a song entitled “Zulu”). In Marrakesh he began working closely with musicians from the Gnawa minority who practice a Sufi-influenced form of Islam and use music and dance to induce trance states.
The encounter with Africa did not so much change Weston’s music as bring into focus elements that were already there. He no longer refers to his music as “jazz,” but only as African rhythms, and this rhythmic thrust has come to the fore in his piano playing, harkening back to the ideas he absorbed as a young man from Monk. For many years Weston has been performing in tandem with bassist Alex Blake and African percussionist Neil Clarke. This is not the standard jazz piano trio in which bass and drums create a background for the melodic and harmonic explorations of the main instrument. Rather, the lead keeps shifting between the three members, and often it seems that there are three rhythm instruments. They will be at Kerrytown Concert House on Saturday, March 20.