Brooklyn-born pianist Randy Weston came home in 1973, after living for six
years in Tangier, Morocco, where he ran a nightclub. His reasons for the
move to Africa were essentially twofold: because, as he says, "it's the
dream of every Afro-American to one day visit the mother continent," and
because, opportunities for steady work for jazz musicians in America being
at some kind of low point in the late Sixties, there didn't seem to be
much point in an artist of Randy's stature hanging around.
Since his return, Weston has benefited from the American public's slow but
steady reawakening to the beauties of jazz and has enjoyed some success,
largely due to two big-band albums, one of which, Blue Moses, was the
best-selling record of his career, and the other of which, Tanjah, was
nominated for a Grammy award. Weston, who these days divides his time
about evenly between Paris and New York, can take comfort in the fact
that, if his name is not exactly a household word, he has won a new
generation of loyal and appreciative American listeners.
His African experience served to heighten the rhythmic intensity of his
playing and make him a more forceful and exuberant pianist than ever. But
as these tracks, taken from the beginning of Randy's recording career in
the mid-Fifties, make clear, he has always been a pianist of above-average
imagination, drive, and rhythmic strength.
Rhythm has always been the cornerstone of Weston's piano style. Not that
he doesn't also have a keen sense of melody and harmony-he has, in fact,
written some of the most beautiful melodies in contemporary American
music-but to hear him play is, primarily, to be reminded of two things:
that the piano is a percussion instrument before anything else (after all,
its sound comes from the action of hammers hitting taut strings), and that
rhythm is the foundation of Afro-American improvised music.
A strong rhythmic sense is especially important to a pianist who plays
without percussion accompaniment, as Weston does on seven of the tracks
here, and as he has been doing more and more lately. "Solo piano opens up
a whole new world," he says. "I'm very grateful for the opportunity to
When Randy was first approached about recording for Riverside
Records-which was about to embark on a policy of recording modern jazz
after having established itself as a reissue label-the late Bill Grauer,
Riverside's president, wanted him to record solo, but he refused.
"I was playing at Music Inn in the Berkshires," he recalls, "when Grauer
heard me play and told me, 'Man, I want to record you.' I was excited,
because I had never made a recording, but I didn't think I had anything to
offer. I wanted to do a trio album, but he said solo. I was scared to
death about doing it alone! Finally we compromised and did a duo album
with Sam Gill, an old friend, on bass."
Weston had just turned 28 when he went into the studio with Gill on April
27, 1954. That's hardly young in jazz-musician terms, but in a career that
had taken a couple of detours-once for Army service, once when he went
into the restaurant business with his father-it was practically the first
time he had been inside a recording studio:
"The only other record I had been on was an r&b date with a group called
The Clovers-Connie Kay was on drums. The hardest part of this session was
just to realize that I was making a recording under my own name and
playing the music the way I wanted."
The way he wanted was distinctive and consistently surprising, a style
that made full use of the entire keyboard and was punctuated by forceful,
piquant accents. The repertoire for that first session consisted entirely
of Cole Porter compositions, the intent being to make the pianist more
accessible to the general audience by giving him familiar material to work
with-an approach that was used again the following year by Riverside when
Thelonious Monk, a pianist with whom Weston has many stylistic
similarities, made his Riverside debut with an album of nothing but Duke
Ellington tunes. But in Randy's hands, a standard like "What Is This Thing
Called Love" takes on an entirely new character-in fact, the melody Porter
wrote is jettisoned in favor of a spry, jumpy new one that exemplifies
Weston's imagination and high spirits. The Cole Porter album was a
musically auspicious beginning, although it reached only a very small
Although Randy says he was nervous and unsure of himself at that session,
it's obvious that he had already developed a powerful personal style. Itís
a style that was honed in Brooklyn, where he was born in 1926, and in the
Berkshires, where he gained hard experience doubling as musician and cook
and playing for both listening and dancing.
Born on April 6, 1926, Randy virtually grew up surrounded by budding
musicians-among his Brooklyn contemporaries were Max Roach, Duke Jordan,
Cecil Payne, and Ray Copeland. He also developed an interest in things
African at an early age, due to the influence of his father, who "kept a
lot of books about Africa in the house. Most of the things being said
about Africa were so negative, but my father had a great deal of pride,
and for me to eventually listen to more and more African music and the
music of the Caribbean and South America was due to his influence."
Randy did not begin to pursue music seriously , as a career until 1949,
after two years as a restaurateur. After a few years of mostly local work,
he was ready to give it up again: "I didn't think I wanted to be a
musician, and I was tired of New York and wanted to get out. A friend of
mine said, if you want to get out, go to the Berkshires. I got a job at
Music Inn in Lenox, Massachusetts, as the second cook, and I played the
piano at night after I was through in the kitchen. I met a lot of people
who encouraged me to stay with my music."
Among those who encouraged him were musicians who came to Lenox to play at
the Tanglewood Music Festival. Randy particularly remembers a drummer from
Guinea who played him a tape that impressed him for its rhythmic
complexity and its similarities to Afro-American music. He also met
Marshall Stearns, the jazz historian, who impressed on him the importance
of knowing the roots of the music he played. And, of course, he met Bill
Grauer, who along with Riverside's vice president, Orrin Keepnews, decided
Randy was the man to initiate the label's modern jazz policy.
Randy remembers one thing quite distinctly about his first visit to the
Riverside offices in midtown Manhattan: the beat-up old player piano with
an impressive stack of piano-roll music by masters of ragtime, stride, and
boogie-woogie. "They made me listen to the old guys," he recalls. "At that
time, when you're young, all you want to hear is the modern stuff. That
was important to me."
Despite the way Weston tells it, it's unlikely he needed much persuasion
to listen to "the old guys." He has always been acutely aware of his
pianistic heritage, and he is quick to list, with obvious gratitude, his
prime influences-Count Basie ("I love his use of space. I used to play
just like him"), Nat Cole ("He never missed a note"), Art Tatum ("The
greatest pianist ever, and for all he played, he made it sound simple"),
Ellington (for "his tremendous scope in music, his sense of colors and
textures and drive-my God, what drive!"), and, of course, Monk ("He's
certainly got to be the most original pianist I've ever heard anywhere.
And such beauty, and rhythm, and humor, and that kind of simplicity that
distinguishes the great artists").
Randy says that he was playing in a style similar in many ways to Monk's
even before he had heard Monk, but it is no slight to Weston to suggest
that by the time he began recording for Riverside he had absorbed much of
Monk's influence into his style-more, probably, than any other pianist.
Listen to his rendition of "Sweet Sue," with its jerky rhythms and mocking
humor-and his superb interaction with Art Blakey on drums, who was at the
time one of Monk's favorite accompanists-and it's impossible to miss the
influence. But it is also impossible to confuse Weston with Monk; his
style is more flowing, more orchestral, and despite the obvious influences
recognizably his own.
Less than a year after the duo session, Weston recorded that quirky "Sweet
Sue" and four other tunes, including two originals by him and one by Gill,
with Gill and Blakey. At that same session he laid down his first solo
track, a pensive and moving "If You Could See Me Now," and the following
year he was prevailed upon to record four more solo numbers. Whatever his
doubts about his ability to play unaccompanied, he did a magnificent job,
achieving a stunning blend of colors and making intriguing use of space.
Note, too, the pervasive Western humor-the way he segues into a
calliope-type waltz in the middle of "Little Girl Blue," the playful
right-wrong notes he hits during "Lover."
Earlier in 1956, Weston had displayed his versatility by recording his
first quartet session, with old friend Cecil Payne on baritone sax. His
sensitivity as an accompanist is everywhere evident on these selections,
on which he achieves an almost telepathic sympathy with Payne. Highlights
session are an most impossibly swift "Man I Love" and the first recording
of one of Weston's best-known compositions, the waltz "Little Niles,"
which like "Pam's Waltz" was written for one of his children. (Niles
Weston grew up to become Azzedin Weston, one of today's foremost conga
drummers and, according to his father, "somebody I learned a lot about
The late Fifties and early Sixties saw Weston's reputation bloom, as
performer, composer (his works were recorded by such diverse talents as
Lionel Hampton, Cannonball Adderley, Eric Dolphy, and Lambert, Hendricks
and Ross), and educator (he organized a series of lecture-concerts on the
history of jazz). But he never really attained a level of success
commensurate with his unique talents, and in 1961 a seed was planted in
his mind when he visited Nigeria, along with 28 other black American
musicians, actors, and writers, for a performing arts festival.
"I went to see if there was any connection between the culture of West
Africa and the culture of black America," he explains. "I met all sorts of
fascinating people. I developed a tremendous passion and love for Africa.
I knew I had to go back. I wanted to learn more about my own people."
Six years later-shortly after he experienced the frustration of trying to
improve his lot by forming his own record company, which put out one
excellent record before dying-he made his move, not to Nigeria but to
Morocco, where he opened a nightclub. "It was successful," he says. "It
was a great experience. Artists from all over the world played there. But
I had a partner who, after it opened up, stopped working, and eventually
we ran out of money."
By that time, though, he was so revered in both Africa and Europe that he
decided it was time to give the States another try. Blue Moses
reestablished him, but at a certain musical price, as Randy sees it:
"I'm grateful for Blue Moses. If it wasn't for that, people here wouldn't
know who Randy Weston is. But when I hear it, I'm very unhappy with the
sound, because I play the electric piano on it and it isn't my sound.
Music was the first form of speech, and the way I play is like the way I
talk. The beauty is in the individual sound. But when I hear an electric
piano, it sounds like a robot speaking. It reminds me of Star Wars."
Randy Weston is a great believer in individuality, in simplicity, and in
the roots of his music. He takes his role as a musician-historian very
seriously, and is proud of the fact that the French government has
recently given him a grant to give his lecture-concerts there. But all
this wouldn't mean very much if he weren't also a superb musician. He
emphatically is, and he has been for quite a while, as you can discover
for yourself with this collection.
by Peter Keepnews