It’s a hot summer’s day, and Randy Weston’s 6-foot-8 frame fills the doorway of his Brooklyn brownstone as he invites me in to chat before he heads off for a gig at Greenwich Village’s Blue Note club.
Weston was born in Brooklyn. And it was here, he says, that the Afro-centric viewpoints of his parents and the wild ferment of jazz and black culture in general taught him to think broadly about music and its historical sweep.
Weston’s life dovetailed with most of jazz’s history. He didn't have to travel far to hear giants. Count Basie, Nat King Cole, and Duke Ellington were among his early influences, as were musicians like Duke Jordan, Errol Garner, Art Tatum, and Willie “The Lion” Smith, who often frequented his father's West Indian restaurant. Thelonious Monk gave Weston wordless one-on-one lessons in the late 1940s.
Weston plays two solo-piano tracks on his latest recording, Zep Tepi (Random Chance). “Route Of The Nile” evokes the lyricism of Ellington, while “Ballad For T,” built on dissonant harmonies and disjointed phrases, is in obvious dedication to Monk. At 80, Weston may be jazz's strongest link to these towering legacies. And he is singular for the degree to which he’s mined jazz's African underpinnings.
Eight trio tracks on the new disc display the spiritual heft and rhythmic intensity resulting from this interest. And Weston’s African Rhythms Trio amplifies the idea. Eschewing the trap set found in most jazz-piano trios, Neal Clarke plays hand percussion, primarily conga drums. Meanwhile, Weston's bassist, Alex Blake, often strums his instrument in a percussive manner, much like a Moroccan Gnawa tribesman would his three-stringed hajouj (also referred to as a sintir or giumbri). Gnawan music is ritual music, meant to induce trance, and Weston and his bandmates achieve propulsive vamps to similar, often mesmerizing effect.
Forty years ago, Weston set off for Africa on a trip that would ultimately land him in Morocco. He had two reasons for the journey. “I went partly because of my interest in traditional music of Africa,” he recalls, “and partly because of the music scene at the time and the impact of rock and electronics—you had to plug into a wall if you wanted to get a gig.”
For Weston, Gnawa music has a special allure. Descendants of black Africans who came to Morocco in 16th century, the Gnawan people arrived as slaves and, more recently, as migrant workers. The central ritual of their musical culture is the trance ceremony, which is said to heal or purify participants. Weston, who has lived in Morocco on and off for some 40 years and who has recorded and performed with Gnawa musicians on many occasions, heard a connection between Gnawa music and classic jazz right away. “I thought of Jimmy Blanton right away,” he says. Most jazz critics credit Blanton with updating the role of the bass while a member of Duke Ellington’s orchestra, but Weston heard history differently. “I was always fascinated by the switch on string bass from Water Page and his concept with Count Basie to Blanton and his concept with Ellington. Whenever I heard Ellington, Blanton’s bass always blew my mind. When I heard Gnawa years later, I realized that Blanton was doing something very old, that it was an African approach.”
Despite the African influences, nothing sounds foreign on his new recording. In fact, the more familiar original compositions Weston plays, such as “High Fly” and “Berkshire Blues,” are mid-century American classics. He wrote the latter tune many years ago, in honor of the Music Inn, an educational retreat in Lenox, Massachusetts, where his mind was opened and his musical career kicked into gear.
“The scholar Marshall Stearns had a great impact on me in the Berkshires,” said Weston. “He would lecture, and he was talking about the African basis for American jazz—something I’d never heard discussed that way before, even thou