Randy Weston, pianist/composer, and
Melba Liston, arranger, have decided to team up again after yet
another successful collaboration on their last efforts, "The
Spirits of Our Ancestors," a double CD package, and the single CD, 'African
Sunrise," selections from the "Spirits"' double package. They're a
winning team, as evidenced by the fact that most of their collaborations
have become all-time classics worldwide.
"Volcano Blues" is the current ambitious undertaking by the Weston/Liston
composer/arranger team. It underscores an element in the music that Randy
Weston speaks of whenever and wherever he is performing-the blues!
When it comes to the basics, Randy prefers to stick to them like glue,
whether it's the basics of living or the basics of music. The blues is the
basic foundation of our music, particularly the music we call jazz. Randy
recognizes, as our Afrikan ancestor did, that God gave us the basics of
everything, so that we may learn to appreciate and enjoy simplicity.
He said, "The Blues is that wonderful music that is also the most simple
and the most direct way that I can think of to communicate simplicity. I
can't think of any other music that can get a message across so clearly
and directly. The blues is Afrika's contribution to American music. It's
probably the most ancient music that has ever existed."
So basic is the blues to the foundation of jazz music that Randy strongly
suggests that learning to play it is a prerequisite to becoming a true
jazz musician. "One of the first things we learned growing up in New York
is that if you're going to be a jazz musician, the first thing you better
know is that you have to be able to play the blues. If you can't play the
blues, you can't play jazz, because the blues is the essence of our
What is the Blues?
The blues is a music of raw emotion, of unsurpassed emotional depth. It's
a music you can feel down to the bone, to your very soul. It can wrench
your gut, make you cry, laugh, and shiver, all at once. But it can bring
release and strengthen you, too.
Langston Hughes describes the blues in his First Book of Jazz, which he
wrote in 1955. "The blues are almost always sad songs ... but often there
is something about the blues that makes people laugh (in the lyrics). In
the blues, behind the sadness there is almost always laughter and
strength. Perhaps it is these qualities, carried over from the blues into
jazz, that makes people all over the world love this American music."
Another probable reason for its undying popularity is the fact that the
blues experience is usually a common experience shared by many. It builds
unbreakable bonds between the blues singer or instrumentalist and his or
her listeners. The listeners' response is most likely, "Yea, I know what
you talking about. Say it again!" Perhaps that's why lines are so often
repeated, because of this call and response.
The blues is a child pining for the love of its mother. Then there's the
"I ain't got no money" blues; the "I ain't got no job" blues; the "I lost
my man or woman" blues; or the "I'm lonely" blues. A lot of folks can
relate to these woes.
ABOUT THE MUSIC
For Randy Weston and Melba Liston, "Volcano Blues" represents the various
types of blues that exist. For example, this recording begins with a
traditional American blues:
Blue Mood Randy wanted to start with a T -Bone classic song sung by
Johnny Copeland, who is from Texas. Copeland is accompanied by a lone
guitar which further enriches the authenticity of this blues song.
Directly following is a blues from Afrika itself,
Chalabati Randy explains, "We wanted to go from the pure, raw blues
of Afrikan-Americans to Afrika itself. And Chalabati represents the Gnaoua
of Morocco, but it also represents that royalty that we have in Afrikan
music. The arrangements that Melba did and the mood of this song reminds
me of Afrika at its most majestic time." Melba Liston's mastery as an
arranger shines on this Afrikan traditional blues. She knows how to make
the brass and percussion interplay without overshadowing Randy Weston's
delightful piano playing. Jamil Nasser, master bassist, opens the song
with his steady bass line and provides the song's foundation throughout
the song. The rhythm of this song is light and playful, not heavy in
comparison to its precedent.
Sad Beauty Blues, written by Randy Weston in the 60's, represents
New York and its harsh reality lifestyle. Brilliant brass tones open this
number with Wallace Roney's trumpet, taking the lead and paving the way
for a solo on piano by Randy. Then Roney returns as lead on trumpet
joining the other brass players in ending the song which finales with a
few sparse piano notes in the lower register.
The Nafs, another Randy composition, is a word used by the ancient
Sufis to describe the negative forces. Obo Addy's talking drum intros.
Melba's use of call and response in her arrangements works well here.
Hamiet Bluiett on baritone sax adds the right flavor to this composition.
Randy punctuates the song's end with a few sparkling keynotes in the upper
Volcano was written by Count Basie. Randy describes it as a kind of
calypso, a Caribbean blues. It was played by Basie's band in the 40's.
This is a cheerful, witty arrangements by Melba that showcases Randy's
considerable talents on piano right from the beginning. He doesn't have to
work his way into it as in some of the other songs. Instead, he catches
the listener's attention right away and puts them in a festive mood that
is consistent throughout the song. The brass, percussion and bass meld
wonderfully together. Benny Powell adds a lively, well-timed solo on
trombone enhancing the song's festivity.
Harvard Blues is a blues that Randy describes as pure Count Basie.
He first heard it in the early 40's and had always loved it. Originally,
it featured Jimmy Rushing with the Count Basie Orchestra and Don Byas was
featured on tenor saxophone. On this tune it's back to the basics
featuring Johnny Copeland's bluesy down home vocals. Randy intros on piano
followed by the slow lazy drawl of Teddy Edwards' tenor saxophone,
transformed into a mellow, slow dance-with-me-baby wail. Copeland's
poignant vocals are backed by Benny Powell's trombone. Bass, played by
Jamil Nasser, follows suit and keeps the traditional blues bass line
intact. Percussion on this one is subtle but in perfect complement, played
by drummer Charli Persip. It's wonderful to hear and feel the guitar of
Ted Dunbar, reminiscent of Freddie Green, the great acoustic guitarist who
was part of the rhythm section of Count Basie's Band. Randy skillfully
intercedes with a last solo before the song ends.
In Memory of is another of Randy's compositions. It was written in
memory of people who have passed away, particularly musicians. It is
reminiscent of the West Afrikan, New Orleans tradition. It starts slow on
the way to the cemetery, and then on the way back, after the body is
buried, the music livens and everyone parties, expressing the West Afrikan
belief that when you die you go to a better place. Melba took the liberty
to give this composition a more upbeat arrangement than its original
version. Randy intros joined by the horns while he leads on piano.
Benny Powell solos, followed by Wallace Roney on trumpet.
Benny Powell offers another more exciting solo before the piano, brass
and percussion return and the song fades out slowly.
Blues to Strayhorn is a Randy Weston composition written for Billy
Strayhorn, who was Duke Ellington's assistant arranger or right hand man,
as Randy puts it. Strayhorn was known for his brilliant
compositions/arrangements such as Take the "A" Train and Lush Life. He was
a great composer, conductor, and pianist. Occasionally, he played piano in
Duke's orchestra. Randy played this song for Strayhorn at his funeral.
This is an especially lush, pretty arrangement by
Melba Liston, an appropriate tribute to Strayhorn whose own
contributions to music were stunningly beautiful. Melba's signature use of
horns is outstanding, as are the solo efforts of Teddy Edwards on tenor
saxophone. Randy sets the mood with his intro and keeps it with his
Ellington influenced flair, apparent throughout this rendition.
Penny Packer Blues is one of many portraits Randy has written for
people he knows, in this case his daughter Kim, when she was a very young
girl. He recalls, "She used to wear very big glasses over her little nose.
Even back then she was an actress. We used to tease her and call her Penny
Packer. This blues is meant to portray a very energetic little girl." This
is a more typical Randy Weston composition complemented by
Melba Liston's ambitious arrangements. Randy plays more powerfully on
this tune and the percussion is more flamboyant and energetic. Talib Kibwe
solos briefly on alto saxophone, followed by solos by Jamil Nasser, and
then Randy himself. The horns carry the rest of the tune.
J.K. Blues is a blues written by Randy Weston for "a young lady who
came to my house one day and took all of my LP's, this was the very early
60's, and went to AMSAC, where she worked and convinced the director to
take Randy Weston to Afrika instead of Phineas Newborn, Jr. AMSAC was the
first group to take Afrikan-American artists to Nigeria." That was Randy's
first trip to Afrika. Melba gave this tune a swinging, upbeat tempo with
horns dominating the arrangement. Talib Kibwe solos on alto saxophone,
Randy on piano. It's a short but memorable tune, one that could stay in
your head all day and make you hum it to yourself.
Mystery of Love, written by Guy Warren, is a Ghanaian love song.
It's the Ghanaian version of Romeo and Juliet. It's also Randy's theme
song. Randy arranged this blues version of the song. He creates deep
growls in the lower register keys on the piano as he turns this majestic
instrument into a percussive one with his left hand, while playing the
melody with his right. Teddy Edwards joins him in complement to Randy's
percussive artistry. Jamil Nasser masterfully keeps the rhythm steady and
smooth on bass.
Kucheza Blues is written and arranged by Randy Weston. Randy is at
his best as arranger on this tune he originally recorded as part of his
Uhuru Afrika suite in 1960. Kucheza means "dancing" (dancing blues).
This song represents a time in the future: when Afrika finally gets her
freedom, we're going to have one great, big party! On this arrangement,
horns and percussion get equal attention and there are more solos-a
whopping 7 solos! But this is characteristic of Randy, especially in live
performance where he often gives his sidemen a chance to showcase their
incredible talents. Each soloist gives a brilliant performance. Ted Dunbar
gets to reveal his best on guitar without being overwhelmed by the other
players. And this tune is a great vehicle for both percussionists, Charli
Persip on drums, and Obo Addy, who take full advantage of the opportunity,
Blues for Elma Lewis written for Elma Lewis by Randy. Lewis is a
great lady who has an Afrikan school and museum in Boston and has done
much to promote and project Afrikan culture. She's been a great influence
to Randy and, in fact, was responsible for him getting the commission to
do the suite,
Three Afrikan Queens which he and Jamil Nasser, Big Black and Idrees
Sulieman performed with the Boston Pops Orchestra. This composition is
short but sweet. It begins with a flurry of percussive effects created by
Charli Persip and is swept into the big band sound with later solos by
Talib Kibwe on soprano sax and Randy on piano. Melba makes this
arrangement swing at the outset but midway tones it down until it glides
into a gentle finale of soft high treble piano notes.
Each song captures a different version of the blues according to the
imagination and versatility of Randy Weston and Melba Liston.
1993 Rhashidah E. McNeill