COLE PORTER IN A
This album introduced
an exciting new jazz talent: a pianist whose musical concepts are
thoroughly "modern" yet who also possesses one skill that has been a
fundamental since the earliest days of jazz - the ability to lay down a
firm, true beat.
The music of Cole Porter has been put to many uses but hardly ever can it
have been removed as far from its standard settings in the suave slickness
of musical comedy or as background for cocktail lounge conversation. Not
that there's anything at all wrong with musical comedies or cocktail
lounges. But in this LP the intention is quite different. Here these
familiar Porter tunes serve to showcase the brilliant jazz ideas of Randy
Regardless of how the composer might feel about it, there's a definite
compliment being paid him. Jazz improvisation in any style benefits by
starting from a strong base, and Weston has discovered a richness and
firmness in the melody and structure of this Porter repertoire that
provides a very rewarding jumping-off place for his own imaginative jazz
interpretations. Most of these are quite well-known numbers, and the
choice is both intentional and valuable. For quite fundamentally, it's a
great help to a listener to be aware of just what the starting point is
from which a musician begins his improvisatory flight. Lack of initial
identification can be a serious drawback, as far as the essential matter
of communication between a jazzman and his audience is concerned. In
brief: if they don't know where you came from, how can they know where
you're at and where you're going...
For such reasons, there has come about this unique combination: memorable
Cole Porter songs placed in a fresh context by the mind and fingers of a
richly promising young jazz artist.
Randy Weston is also uniquely striking in appearance. As the photograph on
die cover may indicate, he's very probably the only pianist with the
problem of fitting in a full six foot, seven inches of height at the
keyboard. He was born in Brooklyn in 1926. It was his father who persuaded
him to start studying music, and (except for a couple of years in die
Army, followed by some brief indecision about returning to a jazz career).
Randy has been playing piano steadily since he was 15. It's safe to say
that from die start there was little question as to what his path in jazz
would be. For like so many others of his generation. Weston grew up with a
strong awareness of the music of those groups that helped pave die way for
modern jazz: the big bands of Count Basic, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines
(all, of course, led by pianists). Like so many others, the first piano
soloist he was conscious of was Art Tatum. And when he first began to
think of himself as a musician it was the early Forties, and there was
Manhattan's 52nd Street, just beginning to turn into the first downtown
stronghold of the new jazz form they were calling "bebop."
Just about everyone was playing on "The Street" then, but for Randy there
was, above all, Coleman Hawkins. Actually, he tried briefly to play piano
with phrasing patterned after the Hawk's horn, but soon recognized that
"it just didn't fit."
But the great tenor star's hand in those days included a good many able
young musicians; in particular, a steady flow of remarkable piano men, all
of whom Randy listened to often and was impressed by: Thelonious Monk,
Hank Jones, Eddie Heywood, Sir Charles Thompson. He credits all of these
as "influences" on his style, although it's clear enough that the impact
of Monk was (and still is) most significant.
Although slow in returning to music after having been cut off from it
during military service, Weston was back at the piano in earnest by 1950.
By this time there were Bud Powell, Duke Jordan, and the brilliant
pianist-arranger John Lewis to be added to his list of "influences." The
quotation marks continue to go around that word because it's Randy's own
term, and perhaps more often than is really accurate, one that an aware
young musician is apt to use automatically. Of course any young artist -
particularly one coming along at a time when a new approach to jazz and to
his instrument is just breaking forth - hears many players, is awed and
impressed by more than a few.
Inevitably, almost all contribute something in his own approach, although
it may be far more a matter of inspiration or instruction (a specific
concept grasped, or a hit of technique mastered) than of literal
"influence" on sound or phrasing, or on overall style. Since few if any
musicians can function effectively in a vacuum, a young pianist like
Weston is bound to reflect in some way the slightly older generation from
whom he absorbed first principles and the contemporaries with whom he
consorts and competes. But the test must be whether these "influences"
lead him into creative musical expression that is identifiably his own, or
make him merely a mild mélange of other members of the same "school"
mirror that does no more than reflect, or a prism that creates its own
pattern. This album should leave no doubt that Randy Weston's playing is
his own, that the style and its impact are personal and unique.
But you can learn a great deal about any artist by knowing specifically
what it is he hears and prizes most highly in others. Thus it's worth
noting that Weston ranks Tatum, Powell, Lewis, and Monk as "best." In
speaking of John Lewis he refers to his playing and arrangements as
"really cool, melodic, and beautiful." and he says of Thelonious: "His
importance in modern music can't be overemphasized. Just about everything
about Monk impresses me: his compositions. the melodies and rhythms he
creates. One thing that I've always thought is the way you can always feel
the beat with Monk. And then there's what I think of as his 'simplicity.'
Not that his music isn't very complex: of course it is, but it always
comes through so clear and accurate and true, so uncluttered not like some
players today, where there's just too many notes and nothing happening."
These qualities of beauty, clarity, and a beat you can always feel turn
out. not at all surprisingly, to be abundantly present in Weston's own
In the past few years, Randy has been playing in small groups and as a
soloist in Greenwich Village, in Brooklyn, in upstate New York. al
Massachusetts resorts. For the most part he has been able to stay in the
modern-jazz vein he loves, although there have been a couple of
bread-and-butter "rhythm and blues" detours. But he feels that until this
recording session, he had never really had an opportunity to take off on
his own. Riverside is proud of its choice of Randy Weston for its own
debut release in the modern jazz field.
For on this LP, Weston - ably
assisted by bassist Sam Gill, a recent Juilliard graduate - takes full
advantage of his initial chance to demonstrate that he has a great deal to
say and a considerable jazz future.
1955 Orrin Keepnews