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
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
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
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
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
Tribune and Howard Reich