By Daniel Garrett
Randy Weston, The Storyteller
Produced by Randy Weston and Todd Barkan
Associate Producer T.K. Blue
(Jazz at Lincoln Center)
Motema Music Corp., 2010
It is impossible for most of us to describe music—and thus, we simply say whether we like it and what it inspires us to feel. However, when elements are fine and come together to form an appealing and satisfying whole, there is beauty and we know it, but beauty does not have always a muscular strength—as does the work of pianist Randy Weston and his collaborators. I have been told that the word beauty has been used too much; and that might have been true at one time—but it is not true now. How could it be, when so much art is ugly in appearance, attitude, content, and effects? Yet, in its ability to give the sublime an actual presence in the lives of its listeners, there is less distance between African-American improvisational music and European composed long-form music than many people thought decades ago; and now both traditions are threatened by the incomprehension and ugliness of the surrounding world, making them more valuable rather than less. The work of jazz musician Randy Weston has great authority, and in it light notes are balanced—or haunted—by dark chords; and there is jostling energy and yearning horns and a shuffling beat within stark arrangements: there is majesty, depth, and pleasure.
“Chano Pozo,” named for an Afro-Cuban percussionist, creates a commanding rumination; and “African Sunrise” is jaunty, evoking village streets and nightclubs, becoming more delicate and intimate; and those two compositions are followed by a progression of nine songs called “The African Cookbook Suite,” compositions that have been influenced by African melodies and rhythms, beginning with “Tehuti” and then “Jus’ Blues,” which is gritty and churning and then ordered, nearly martial, and “The Bridge” is assertive to the point of being abrasive, making “The Shrine,” which features a flute, even more sublime.
To create a piece of music that is perceived as spiritual—rather than simply announced as spiritual—is a genuine achievement. Music in Africa is known for its polyphony, its many notes, patterns, and sounds, produced in both harmony and contrast; and music there, as elsewhere, is for public and private events—and can come in the form of praise songs, spirit songs, and work songs and be the inspiration for dance as much as worship. Its connection to jazz is not hard to imagine; and that connection began to be explored by Randy Weston decades ago. Curiosity, discipline, and patience are required to maintain the kind of attention it takes to understand aesthetics—and to be an inventor; and this devotion and discipline transformed Weston’s talent and brought him greater respect: his album Uhuru Afrika is now fifty-years old, and Uhuru Afrika is considered a classic by those who know it. Since the creation of that work, more people have become able to recognize African rhythms and the sounds of the mbira hand-piano, the kora string instrument, gourd rattles and other African instruments. Time has allowed more of us to understand Randy Weston as an elder statesman in music, a creator, a griot, a prophet.
Randy Weston’s collaborators on The Storyteller are saxophonist T.K. Blue, bassist Alex Blake, conga player Neil Clarke, drummer Lewis Nash, and the now deceased trombonist Benny Powell. (The scholar Robin D. G. Kelley, in the album’s notes, calls Benny Powell an “encyclopedia of black music,” someone able to express his knowledge succinctly within a few minutes of music.) All the songs but one are written by Randy Weston; and the exception—“Love, The Mystery of”—is by Ghanaian musician Guy Warren. The quality of the recorded sound is clear throughout The Storyteller, and the instruments are participating in another form of speech. “Loose Wig” is fast, moving toward a destination that the next piece “Wig Loose” provides; and the modulations of patterns and tones inspire respect for the control involved. (“One hears in the tune’s chromatic progressions, dissonant intervals, and sense of humor the influence of Thelonious Monk,” wrote Robin Kelley.) There is an accessible complexity in “Hi Fly,” which has a slowed-down pace (the saxophone is both piercing and soothing), but “Fly Hi” is playful, uptempo. “Love, The Mystery of,” inspired by the story of a hunter and a maiden, is music at a slow gallop, a journey toward treasure; and there is no reason to disagree with the assertion that music is a healing force.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Garrett originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.” He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth.