Randy Weston

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BERKSHIRE BLUES

recorded 18 August 1965 and 14 October   1965
New York  USA
CD  1995   Black Lion  760205
LP  1977   Freedom     INT147.301
LP  1977   Arista          AL1026


| real | wm |  

        liner notes


Randy Weston piano
Vishnu Bill Wood bass  (except 4, 5, 6, 7)
Lennie McBrowne drums  (except 4, 5, 6, 7)

Alan Bates
producer
Duke Ellington and Ruth Ellington
producer
Michael Cuscuna additional production
Bob Blumenthal
liner notes
David Gahr
photography
 

  1   Three Blind Mice  (traditional arr. Weston)
  2   Perdido
  (Juan Tizol)
  3   Purple Gazelle  (D.Ellington)
  4   Berkshire Blues  (Weston)
  5
  Lagos  (Weston)
  6
  Sweet Meat  (Weston)
  7   Ifran
  (Weston)


BERKSHIRE BLUES


Duke Ellington…….. the now-legendary Randy Weston band of the 60s Randy’s solo piano Africa …..the Berkshires ... the blues; the performances contained on this album -recorded in 1965 but released here for the first time touch on so many essential aspects of the artists 'life and music. The past few years have provided a healthy flow of new and reissued Weston recordings, but Berkshire Blues is still an uncommonly comprehensive portrait of Randy Weston, man and musician.

Edward Kennedy Ellington, who Randy succinctly describes as probably the greatest chief of all in the spoken introduction preceding his Tribute to Duke Ellington (on Carnival), was a formative influence on Weston the pianist and Weston the composer. The striking harmonies and rhythmic activity of a Weston solo, the noble sweep of his conception and his almost traditionally clean touch (which immediately improves the tonal quality of even the most recalcitrant instrument), and the orchestral potential in every Weston composition reveal a thorough and highly personal assimilation of Ellingtonia.

Lest there be any doubt, Randy has gone on record often in the past to the effect that Ellington, together with Thelonious Monk and Art Tatum, ”opened up a whole new world of music” It was the Ellington band which first attracted the Brooklyn teenager ( I didn’t quite realize Ellington as a pianist at that time, Randy once told Ira Gitler), until Randy’s initial encounter with Thelonious Monk in 1944 led him to reevaluate Duke the pianist.

The way Randy described Ellington’s keyboard style to Nat Hentoff in 1957 applies equally to his own approach: He’s very definite, he’s not afraid to do what's in his mind, and his playing has that sound and drive he gets from his orchestra..... He can be wild and then become so subtle The blues feeling be and his band have moves me so no matter what they re playing. And in 1969, after touring extensively in Africa and taking up residence in Morocco, Randy admitted to Valerie Wilmer that he was still as amazed by Ellington as I was ten years ago.

It must have meant quite a bit to Randy when Ellington selected him as one of the first artists on the maestros own projected record label. The album was taped in two sessions, during August and October of 1965, production chores were shared by Duke and sister Ruth Ellington, who also was (and is) active in the management of Dukes Tempo Music Inc. publishing company. Since the label never got beyond the initial planning stages, this music has been a tantalizing rumor for over 11 years.

Two compositions from the Ellington repertory are included, a telling tribute from a fellow composer (Weston almost never recorded other musicians material, though he had previously made exceptions for Dukes -'C Jam Blues and the Ellington/Strayhorn -Star Crossed Lovers ) Perdido, the Juan Tizol riff immortalized by Dukes classic 1942 band, receives an unexpectedly solemn introduction and tempo Randy’s subtle reshaping of the familiar theme suggests a kinship between it and his own Hi Fly.

Purple Gazelle, which Duke once described as the ragtime cha-cha; is a fitting and all-too-common example of a neglected later Ellington work. The composition first appeared in 1962, under the title Angelica, on the occasion of Ellington's collaboration with John Coltrane; a year later it was one of the highlights of Duke’s Afro Bossa, where it proved a meaty blowing vehicle for Jimmy Hamilton, Cootie Williams, Ray Nance, Paul Gonsalves, Ernie Shepherd, Sam Woodyard and the piano player in the band. With Lenny McBrowne placing great emphasis on the beat, Randy is inspired to offer an orchestral theme statement, a solo that moves from wistfulness to strength, and some Ducal comping behind the bass solo of Vishnu Bill Wood.

Both McBrowne and Wood were members of the Weston sextet which also included Big Black, Ray Copeland and the late Booker Ervin, a year before this session the band recorded for Randy’s own Bakton label (when the album reappeared under the title African Cookbook, the reissue was produced by Michael Cuscuna. Three years of working together had made the trio a cohesive and smoking rhythm section, as the shifting moods and tempos of Three Blind Mice demonstrate. This nursery rhyme was no stranger to jazz.

Art Blakey's Messengers had recorded a popular version in 1961 and runs the gamut here from rubato and seesaw 6/8 to a throbbing up-tempo passage similar to Sonny Rollins's East Broadway Rundown (recorded after this performance). Randy 's piano solo has the lean jaggedness of Monk, though the touch and voicings are less stark, and he reinforces the playful mood by quoting "London Bridge" and "Thelonious." With all the shifts on this track, there is an overriding directness and child-like honesty that again binds Weston's music to influences Monk and Ellington.

Side two finds Randy alone, a situation he had encountered before (his first solo session was recorded in 1956) and, since late 1974, has been his exclusive performing venue. Over the past two decades Randy’s style has steadily evolved around a constant center, and it's fascinating to hear how these tracks sound different from the ones on Blues to Africa, while both in turn are unlike a 1977 Weston solo recital. When I first heard the composition Sweet Meat, in a 1973 orchestral recording which featured the alto sax of Ellington alumnus Norris Turney, I remarked in a review that the piece sounded like a distant cousin to “Satin Doll.” Here the meat is darker and the atmosphere more circumspect, with Randy making great use of space and slipping in a little stride.

Berkshire Blues was written in 1962 and recorded by the sextet in 1964; Betty Carter would later put lyrics to the tune and perform it under the title Ego (anyone who knows Randy will verify that Betty didn't have him in mind when she renamed the piece). Throughout the '50s, Randy spent his summers playing at such Berkshire clubs as the Music Inn in Lenox, Massachusetts; it was there that he committed himself irrevocably to music and first became impressed with the rhythmic strength of waltz tempo after hearing the calypso singer MacBeth. Randy 's love of waltzes, which led Cannonball Adderley to dub him “the latter-day Wayne King,” is well displayed on Berkshire Blues, Ifrane, and portions of Three Blind Mice and Lagos. The magnificent Weston touch, and his imaginative left hand, stand out on the title track, a performance which moves in and out of time without losing the essence of timeless blues.

If the mountains of New England offered Randy an important early sense of musical confidence, both his roots and his future were nurtured by the varied terrain of Africa. A lifelong passion for things African, which had been encouraged by Randy' s father, blossomed after a 1961 trip to Lagos, Nigeria in the company of such old friends and collaborators as Langston Hughes and Brock Peters. Randy returned to Lagos in 1963, took his sextet on an extended tour of the continent in 1967, then stayed on with Vishnu Wood and drummer Ed Blackwell, eventually settling in Tangier, Morocco.

Lagos captures the multiple impressions of those early trips, mixing agitation and romance, entwining left and right-hand ideas like thick jungle vines; its descending melodic phrase recalls ”Prelude to a Kiss,” perhaps to remind us that Ellington had also felt a great affinity for Africa throughout his career. Curiously, the other musician Duke recorded for his label was Dollar Brand, who along with Weston personifies the two-way interaction of African and Afro-American music.

Ifrane, which Weston recorded with quintet and overdubbed orchestra in 1972, is named for a Moroccan village in the Atlas Mountains. This is another kaleidoscopic performance (I'm especially fond of the dancing fantasia just before the blowing chorus) marked by a surging optimism so indicative of Randy's African period.

Whether his music reflects the mountains of Morocco or Massachusetts, the urban landscape of Bedford Stuyvesant or the parched African Sahel, there is a common strain which animates all of Randy Weston's music. Once again, Randy said it best when speaking about his idols. "Monk was so heavily steeped in the basic blues, and yet he was able to create modern ideas," he told Ira Gitler in 1964 and five years later, in the Valerie Wilmer interview, he said that Ellington used the sounds of the city, but whatever he does, you can always hear the sounds of the blues. And I think that so-called blues feeling, its rhythm and sound, is the sound of the African village.
 

1977  Bob Blumenthal
 

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