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‘Sound’ by Randy Weston Review: Trying to Capture Joy and Intensity – WSJ

‘Sound’ by Randy Weston Review: Trying to Capture Joy and Intensity - WSJ


https://www.wsj.com/articles/sound-by-randy-weston-review-trying-to-capture-joy-and-intensity-1517864440?mod=searchresults
 
‘Sound’ by Randy Weston Review: Trying to Capture Joy and Intensity
The jazz pianist balances patience with propulsive rhythms in two discs that amount to a grand gesture.
Larry Blumenfeld Feb. 5, 2018 4:00 p.m. ET
 

Jazz pianist Randy Weston Photo: George Braunschweig GM-Press
In July 2001, pianist Randy Weston was in Switzerland to judge a piano competition at the annual Montreux Jazz Festival. At the urging of Blaise Grandjean, a recording engineer with new equipment to try out, he spent two consecutive afternoons at a Steinway grand piano in the ballroom of a Montreux hotel. “No audience, just me and him,” Mr. Weston told me in an interview. “So I was playing for myself.”
He returned to these recordings recently. Listening anew, he felt himself transported back to that room, and to an experience at the piano that “vibrated with joy and intensity,” he said. The 39 tracks of the new two-disc release “Sound” (African Rhythms) invites listeners into those sensations, if not that room.
At Mr. Weston’s very first recording session, for Riverside Records in 1954, producer Orrin Keepnews wanted a solo-piano session. Mr. Weston didn’t have enough confidence in his playing yet. He asked for a trio date. They compromised. “Randy Weston Plays Cole Porter in a Modern Mood” was a duo, with bassist Sam Gill. In the decades since, Mr. Weston’s many solo recordings have sounded like boldly confident declarations. He was 75 years old when he recorded “Sound” (he’s 91 now, and still playing strong). He had just been named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, which formalized what the jazz world had long known. Mr. Weston holds essential wisdom: He is a worthy inheritor of a legacy whose pioneers he heard and knew firsthand. He is also an innovator: His distinctive touch and well-developed ideas changed the dimensions of what pianists can communicate through jazz.
His playing has always balanced patience with propulsive rhythms, delicate lyricism with impressive power. As he’s aged, he’s lost neither force nor tenderness; in fact, these qualities have intensified. His force is evident right away, on “The Call,” which begins disc one here and was his sextet’s opening theme on “Monterey ’66,” recorded at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Here, he plays a few standards. His take on “Tea for Two” reveals traces of the stride-piano style Mr. Weston absorbed from some of his early influences. Two compositions honor a primary mentor, Duke Ellington : Mr. Weston simplifies the structural elements of Juan Tizol’s “Perdido,” which was made famous by Ellington’s orchestra, and he revels in the complexity embedded within Ellington’s “A Chromatic Love Affair.”
Yet he focuses mostly on his own compositions, which are essentially blues-based incantations, alluring for their accessible themes and distinctive for dissonant tone clusters reminiscent of Thelonious Monk, perhaps Mr. Weston’s closest hero. Always, there’s a prayerful sense, even a ritual feel. Alone at the piano, he often reveals a song’s core. As the title track of a 1973 album, Mr. Weston’s “Tanjah” was arranged by Melba Liston for a large ensemble; it featured multiple hand drummers, an oud player and Arabic narration. Here, Mr. Weston evokes Tangier, Morocco, where he lived for several years in the 1970s, chiefly through what he described in his autobiography as “the notes between the notes,” which he heard in both North African music and in Monk’s piano playing.
If these two discs amount to a grand gesture, Mr. Weston communicates most and best via small details. The power of a single note. The meaning of a single note repeated many times. The force of a crashing left-hand figure. The tension held between two dissonant tones or within an unexpected silence. All of which are packed into the three-plus minutes of “Love, The Mystery Of,” which was composed by the Ghanaian drummer Kofi Ghanaba (then known as Guy Warren ) for Mr. Weston’s 1963 album “Highlife,” and now, more than a half-century later, provides this album’s most riveting moments.
—Mr. Blumenfeld writes about jazz for the Journal.






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