Randy Weston "The Roots of the Blues"
The partnership of Randy Weston and Billy Harper dates back to the summer of '74
and Randy's first extended tour of Europe. This musical collaboration is based
as much on their mutual love of the darker hues of their respective instruments as
it is their blues simpatico. Their first recorded collaboration came at a Weston
performance on July 5, 1974 in Switzerland. That edition of the Montreux Jazz
Festival also featured Gil Evans, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. From Gil's band
Randy engaged Billy Harper to augment his trio, and did likewise with AEC drummer
Don Moye. The result was released on the Freedom label and subsequently reissued
by Arista Records.
Weston and Harper first met in 1972 when Randy produced an ambitious festival in
Morocco's northernmost city, Tangier. Of the extraordinary cross-section of artists
invited from Africa and the West, the Max Roach Quartet was one of the headliners.
The band members made the flight to Tangier – including Billy Harper, Cecil Bridgewater
and bassist Jooney Booth; for reasons that still mystify Weston, his Brooklyn
homeboy Max Roach did not make the flight. "When the event started there was still
no Max," Harper remembers, "so I played drums a bit – behind Dexter Gordon and also
Weston and Harper bonded instantly after playing together in Tangier. "I heard the
sound that I like," recalls Weston, "that Texas sound, and being from Texas Billy
is a great blues player. When Billy plays the tenor it's like an orchestra –
the call & response is always there, I always hear the black church in his playing, he's
constantly singing through his horn. As far as why we work well together, it's the
magic, that big, black sound he gets," exclaims Randy.
"Billy's sound comes straight out of Africa," continues Weston of the Houston, Texas
tenor man who is of Somali ancestral lineage, "but it's a universal sound; that cry
he gets in his sound, it reaches your soul. He plays that modern saxophone but it's
very poetic. You listen to his solos and it's a complete composition, you hear the
whole history of the tenor."
Weston's exceptional pianistic low-end theory is on vivid display on the striking
original "Blues to Africa," whose title just about sums up Randy's philosophical
outlook. Check the first few bars, illustrated by Weston's rumbling chords. "The
lower register represents the earth, the elephant and the way the elephant strides
inspires that lower register on "Blues to Africa." Indeed Weston's dark intro does
conjure up images of the majestic pachyderm. "Maybe its because I'm big too," laughs
Weston, "but it's the way elephants walk" that inspired those chords. "I love the
sound of that lower piano register; and you get that only on the Bosendorfer," with
its extra bass keys.
One reason this partnership succeeds from Weston's perspective is Randy's love of
Billy Harper's ability to sustain a note and make it sing. That aspect of Harper's
playing is on vivid display in the performance here of Weston's deeply spiritual
homage "The Healers," particularly in Harper's opening statements. "That one is
for our ancient ancestors who came out of the Nile Valley civilization," Weston
explains. "They are the foundation of what we do today."
As with the great majority of Randy Weston's broad discography, ten of the fourteen
tracks represented here are his originals, plus one Harper contribution. Atypical
is the inclusion of three standards, "Body & Soul," "How High the Moon," and "Take
the A Train." But if you know Randy Weston you know there's a deeper meaning
behind each of these classics. In the case of "Body & Soul" it's all about youthful
joys. When Coleman Hawkins cut his classic rendition of the timeless piece in 1939,
miraculously invoking the melody without ever directly stating it, it became an
all-time hit; just ask anybody on Randy's street in Brooklyn back then. At 13, the
piece so captivated him that he begged an allowance advance and purchased 3 copies
of the recording, wrapped two in cellophane and squirreled them away under his bed
for safe keeping, laid the third copy on the family record player, threw open the
windows and blasted the immortal Hawkins out into the street for all to enjoy. For
this performance, "what I do is in the beginning play a melody based on the bridge
of the piece, which I call Soul and Body, before Billy comes in," Weston informs.
"How High the Moon" was grits & gravy for the bebop generation of the 40s and 50s.
"It was the first piece I heard Lucky Thompson play and I loved it," Randy fondly
recalls of the late, under-recognized saxophone master. "I played with Lucky once
in Brooklyn; what an honor!"
Essential to understanding Randy Weston's artistry is the significant role of Duke
Ellington. Besides Duke's obvious cultural role in shaping so many musicians of
Weston's generation, Ellington's piano style is at the root of Randy's technique.
After Randy returned from Morocco in the early 70s, he came under the Ellington
umbrella when Duke took a liking to Weston's playing. At the encouragement of
sister Ruth Ellington, Duke arranged to record Randy for his short-lived record
label (later reissued by Arista as Blues to Freedom). Ellington's theme song also
bears a practical importance to Weston. "Coming up in Brooklyn the A train gave us
the opportunity to get to Manhattan more directly, and it was written by one of my
idols, Billy Strayhorn. Like the old blues players, Billy tried to capture the sound
of the train with that piece," a sound aptly depicted by Weston's chugging intro
chords, what writer Albert Murray dubbed "railroad onomatopoeia."
"Congolese Children," which first appeared on record on the 1963 Highlife album,
was inspired by Weston's fruitful, artistically formative years in the Berkshires,
playing at the legendary Music Inn among other mountain resorts. "Some of my early
listening to African music came up in the Berkshires. I heard some music from the
region around Lake Kivu in the Congo. That's when I began to incorporate rhythms
and harmonies of Africa in my music."
"Blues to Senegal" and "Carnival" were also motivated by sojourns to the
Motherland. The former inspired by a 1967 tour stop in Dakar; "I heard master
drummer Dou Dou N'Diaye Rose, and my son Azzedine created a rhythm for this piece
based on a Senegalese drum pattern that fit with this melody." "Carnival" is
Randy's memory of visiting Nigerian multi-instrumentalist Bobby Benson's Lagos club
Randy's influential dad, Frank Edward Weston, was a Garvey-ite who encouraged
his young son's immersion in Africa, inspiring the Weston-Harper exploration of
"Timbuktu." "My father talked about Timbuktu as one of the great ancient civilizations
and I always wanted to visit there. This piece is a combination of a prayer and the
greatness of Timbuktu in the ancient times. The piece deals with sadness, love,
history and dreams." Meanwhile "Roots of the Nile" musically depicts Weston's
vivid imaginings of the dawn of the Nile Valley civilization. On this picturesque
rendition Weston works his magic solo.
For his unaccompanied saxophone contribution to the date, Billy Harper chose the
haunting "If One Could Only See," a Weston request . "This is a song that I played
as a solo when Randy and I performed in duet recently in Kyoto, Japan at the Kamigamo
Shrine," explains Harper. "This song was given to me in a dream. In that dream I was
walking down Seventh Avenue in Manhattan and I was carrying an empty tape recorder.
As I strolled along this humungous hand reached down from the heavens and there was
a cassette tape in it. So I accepted the tape, placed it in the empty cassette
player… and one of the most beautiful melodies was played. I woke up immediately
and played what I heard."
"Cleanhead Blues" is a nostalgic homage to one of Weston's early sideman stints.
"I played two weeks with Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson up in Albany and it was quite an
honor; not only was he a great blues singer, he was a great saxophonist as well,"
Weston recalls fondly.
The "bonus track" is an update of the lovely ballad "African Lady," the vocal
highlight of Weston's crowning 1960 suite Uhuru Afrika, celebrating African
independence from colonization. Hearing Randy and Billy discourse on this piece
is deeply remindful of the unique relationship the original recording captured
between the female voice of Martha Flowers and the male emoting of Brock Peters,
paying homage to those sisters who inspired Weston's journey. At a compact 2:42
this rendition also characterizes Weston's intent to make complete statements and
dialogues on this record almost in miniature compared to some of his more expansive
recorded expressions. In myriad ways The Roots of the Blues marks a new hallmark
in Randy Weston's distinguished 87-year odyssey on the planet, as a fervent seeker
of African Rhythms.
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