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Chicago Tribune
March 19, 2001
By  Howard Reich

 

Live performance reveals raw beauty of Weston mixing with Moroccans
 

 Randy Weston and Gnawa Musicians of Morocco
at Symphony Center
 

When a brilliant jazz artist explores the sounds of another culture, he can change the course of music history.

Consider trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie's collaborations in the 1940s with Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo, which yielded provocative new ideas in large-ensemble Latin jazz. Or the Art Ensemble of Chicago's experiments with ancient African instrumentation and ritual in the 1960s, which helped redefine avant-garde jazz.

It's still too early to determine exactly how much influence pianist Randy Weston's work with the Master Gnawa Musicians of Morocco will have on the art of jazz improvisation. But considering that Weston has been collaborating with the Gnawa - the age-old black healer musicians of Morocco - since the mid-1980s, a period in which "world music" has become increasingly popular, Weston's model may prove to have been groundbreaking.

At the very least, his extraordinary performance over the weekend in Symphony Center with the Gnawa Musicians of Morocco illuminated the power of this collaboration in ways that a mere recording could not. For as alluring as these artists sounded on Weston's "The Splendid Master Gnawa Musicians of Morocco" disc of 1994
(on the Antilles label), the recording barely hinted at the sonic power and ceremonial beauty of this work in live performance.

For starters, the ancient art of the Gnawa Musicians of Morocco seamlessly merges elements of musical improvisation, religious ritual and loosely choreographed movement. Like a cantor in the Hebraic tradition, the Gnawa stands as both a musical and spiritual figure in Morocco's Islamic religious culture. (The tradition merged with Islam several hundred years ago.) To hear the Gnawa musicians sing their incantatory phrases (which offer praise to God) while they swerve and sway is to realize anew that this music is not created for the purpose of entertainment. On the contrary, it's a profound expression of faith and healing, its sequences of pitches continuously repeated to trancelike effect.

Yet this is hardly a simplistic prayer music. In fact, when dispatched by the Gnawa Musicians of Morocco, it emerged as nothing less than a virtuoso's art. The vocal lines alone, which are as complex as they are melismatic, rendered Western major and minor scales juvenile by comparison. Add to this the percussive backbeats of a castanet-like instrument called the kakobar, a traditional African drum named the T'bel and a plucked instrument called the hag'houge, and you had more subtle layers of pitch, rhythm and line than the ear fully could absorb in a single hearing.

The music-making became all the more intriguing when the Gnawa musicians shared the microphones with Weston's African Rhythms jazz quintet. All at once, two African-derived musical idioms - African-American jazz and traditional Gnawa music of Morocco - were speaking to one another. To be sure, each contingent made slight compromises to be able to converse with the other. The Gnawa musicians, for instance, adjusted their pitch slightly to suit the Western, well-tempered tuning of Weston's piano. Weston and saxophonist Talib Kibwe, meanwhile, avoided chordal harmony, which has no place in the Gnawa music of Morocco.

Yet when the two ensembles focused on common musical elements creating chant-like melody and free-floating, non-metered rhythm - the effect proved sublime. With Weston's rhythm section embellishing the work of the Gnawa players, Kibwe telegraphing two-note phrases and Weston playing the spacious intervals that musicians call "open fourths" and "open fifths," listeners heard a glorious merger of two related musical cultures. Granted, the concert did not offer as large a contingent of Gnawa musicians as heard on the aforementioned recording. Yet this was an ambitious undertaking nonetheless, and the audience Friday night at Symphony Center paid rapt attention.

Whether Weston was presiding over a small-group jazz version of "Blue Moses" (based on Gnawa music of Morocco) or revisiting the "African Sunrise" composition originally commissioned by the Chicago Jazz Festival, he sounded consistently magisterial.

 

Reprinted with permission Copyright (c) 2006 Chicago Tribune and Howard Reich
 

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