Written by Grant Jackson from NPR
Pianist Randy Weston recently returned to Piano Jazz for a new session with host Marian McPartland. Weston got his start playing with Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and Kenny Dorham in the late 1940s and ’50s, and won New Star Pianist in the 1955 Downbeat poll. By the end of that decade, Weston was inspired by the burgeoning civil rights movement in the U.S. and the independence movement among African nations. Weston incorporated African music into his compositions, and at the end of a 1967 U.S. cultural delegation’s tour of Africa, decided to settle in Tangier, Morocco, where the Brooklyn native operated his African Rhythms club for seven years. In this session, Weston performs a set of tunes reminiscent of his African experience, as well as one of his earliest influences, Thelonious Monk.
Weston kicks off the session with his tribute to Monk, “A Ballad for T.,” which quotes a few bars from Monk’s tunes. As a young man, Weston had the chance to spend time with Monk, and before ever visiting Africa, he’d found connections to the continent in Monk’s music.
“My good friend, the bassist Ahmad Abdul-Malik’s people were from the Sudan, and he played the oud, which has this thing of playing notes between the notes,” Weston says. “I couldn’t get that sound on the piano. But when I heard Thelonious Monk play, I heard this same magic on the piano; even his way of swinging had that same element.”
“African Lady,” part of Weston’s 1960 suite Uhuru Africa, incorporates many African elements and contains a lyric penned by Langston Hughes. Weston’s solo piano take evokes the African continent: elegant, lush landscapes as well as complex, bustling cities and windswept open country. Fifty years on, the piece still sounds fresh and evocative of the cradle of humankind.
Weston focuses on the African city closest to his heart with “Tanjah” (Arabic for Tangier).
“It’s an incredible city,” Weston says. “I had a house overlooking the Mediterranean, and I could see Spain on a clear day.”
The tune opens with a repetitive, driving bass line and a pounding, Monk-like melody that gives way to a marching rhythm, with an Eastern-flavored figure played by the right hand. It conjures the melting pot of cultures in the city’s crowded streets — the sounds and smells — and the wild, dusty landscape beyond the walls. “Little Niles” follows; it’s a tune written for Weston’s son, later known as Azzedine. This composition also refers to Monk in its playful bounce and angular clusters, but with a bit more drama.
Weston finds a deep connection between the organic character of jazz and the natural world.
“This music is totally in touch with Mother Nature. Mother Nature is always improvising — it’s cold, it’s hot, it rains, it snows… this music is in touch with the universe.”
McPartland plays her portrait of Randy Weston, and she has no trouble evoking the towering personality of the 6’8″ pianist. Herself no stranger to leaning on the pedals, McPartland sprinkles her trademark sparkle among deep, expansive chords.
The session closes with Weston’s composition, “Ifrane,” an epic tune from the 1972 album Blue Moses recorded with bassist Ron Carter, drummer Billy Cobham and an ensemble including Grover Washington and Freddie Hubbard. Weston was inspired to write the tune after visiting a ski village in the Atlas Mountains. He plays colorful notes over a monolithic bass line, and the twinkling notes ascend the keyboard to end this week’s session high on a North African mountaintop.
Originally recorded May 12, 2009. Originally broadcast June 22, 2010.