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Sun-Times Chicago
March 18, 2001
By  Lloyd Sachs

 

2  Pianists tap into sense of  spirituality
 

In presenting the double bill of Randy Weston and Chucho Valdes on Friday, Symphony Center offered not only two of the most powerful, percussive pianists alive - and two of the tallest - but also two of the most joyous.  An infectious sense of spiritual enlightenment runs through their music, which through their captivating African or Afro-Cuban rhythms keeps your body moving even as it calms and cleanses your soul.

Jazz has never known a master builder quite like Weston. Opening the show unaccompanied, he laid down a simple, bubbly, blues-tinged riff, which was expounded on by the first-rate members of his African Rhythms quintet, including alto saxophonist Talib Kibwe  and trombonist Benny Powell.

When they were joined by the Master Gnawa Musicians of Morocco, composed of six traditional black players from Tangier and Marrakech, the music was carried to a higher level on waves of percussion (mainly clacking, cymbal-like instruments).

Through the application of insinuating rhythms picked up during a stint in Morocco and pop-folk melodies picked up during his travels to West Africa, the Brooklyn-born Weston slowly created a tingling sense of anticipation.  What was remarkable was that in playing the tension-and-release game, the music satisfied without ever reaching the latter stage.  Its power lay in its atmosphere and Weston's masterly sense of restraint.

For a pianist who imparts such rich, darkly resounding chords, he has a surpassing light touch.  Adding off-angles and splinters of dissonance drawn from one of his idols, Thelonious Monk, and color-rich percussive touches inspired by his other hero, Duke Ellington, he underscored the tension between light and dark.

Making a neat connection between American and African spirituality, the urbane-toned Powell quoted from "Wade in the Water." In groups of three, the Moroccans chanted and danced in the spotlight, finding transcendence in simplicity as they built rhythms atop a stringed instrument that played the dual role of bass and drum.

 

Reprinted with permission Copyright (c) 2006 Sun-Times Chicago and Lloyd Sachs
 

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