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As geniuses of jazz piano go, Herbie Nichols is about as obscure as they come: The cult-inspiring keyboardist who wrote “Lady Sings the Blues” died in 1963 with only 28 originals to his credit. Yet unlike Nichols, 77-year-old Randy Weston fails to secure a chapter in Ben Ratliff’s recent New York Times-sanctioned Jazz: A Critic’s Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings. And though Weston has worked for more than 50 years and released scores of recordings, you’d be hard-pressed to find a record store with a decent stock of his discs. It’s no surprise that the short entry on Weston in the 1995 edition of The Rough Guide to Jazz closes by stating that the Brooklyn native “deserves to be more widely recognized.”
It shouldn’t be this way. The two-time Grammy nominee and Down Beat Composer of the Year has written his share of standards: “Hi Fly,” “Babe’s Blues,” and “Little Niles,” all of which are included in the new Mosaic Select: Randy Weston box set. Driven by an Africanized pulse and colored by Jazz Age lyricism, his compositions have been recorded by Nat King Cole, Eric Dolphy, and Cannonball Adderley, among many others. (Even Carly Simon recorded “Pretty Strange.”) As if that weren’t enough, literary giant and major jazzhead Langston Hughes was a fan: He wrote liner notes for Weston’s 1958 LP Little Niles and composed lyrics for the pianist’s 1960 classic, Uhuru Afrika.
So what’s the problem? Mosaic Records head Michael Cuscuna offers a clue in the box set’s liner notes: Prior to Weston’s multi-album run with Verve France, which began in 1989 and ended in the late ’90s, “his discography was scattered over dozens of American and small European labels and albums disappeared as quickly as others were released.”
Indeed, five of Randy Weston’s six albums originally came out on four different labelsand one never came out at all. What they have in common now is the same megacorp: United Artists, Jubilee, Roulette, and Colpix are all part of EMI these days. The albums themselves, however, are all over the mid-century jazz map. Released after the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, Little Niles and 1959’s Live at the Five Spot pay homage to the days of jazz as popular music. The Melba Liston-arranged “Earth Birth” sets the tone on the former, with Johnny Griffin’s hefty tenor sax, Ray Copeland’s spiky trumpet, and Liston’s sure-handed trombone emulating the slightly saccharine accessibility of Ellington’s big band. And though Weston’s quintet on Live at the Five Spot is one instrument smaller, Liston’s supersized arrangements and Coleman Hawkins’ tenor work help create a mirage of hugeness. On “Hi Fly,” for example, Hawkins and trumpeter Kenny Dorham blow smooth, wide harmonies, which Weston punctuates with pedal-free exclamations.
Unfortunately, Weston’s October stint at the Five Spot was overshadowed the very next month by Ornette Coleman’s controversial residency, which attracted curious jazz VIPs throughout the winter. Perhaps reacting to Coleman’s spare, sideways blues or the emergent rawness of the time, Weston scaled down for his next session, sidelining Liston’s arrangements and opting for a quartet. The unreleased Roulette session from June 4, 1960, is less than a lost classic, but the modernist-bop set deserves better than obscurity. And without Liston’s rich horn charts defining the pieces, Weston’s wonderful piano playing actually gets a chance to shine.
The Monkish “Saucer Eyes” demonstrates Weston’s lack of hubris: Sandwiched between the low-end overload of baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne and bassist Ron Carter, the pianist pecks out a single-handed, right-angled melody in the upper register. By contrast, the box set’s two solo pieces, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and “Cocktails for Two”from 1957’s terribly titled Piano-a-la-Modeare positively orchestral, showing that Weston can play a whole lotta notes when he needs to. Regardless of the setting, he always does what it takes to serve the performanceand more often than not, that means simple, hornlike lines that avoid muddying the group’s sonic spectrum.
Just five months after his first Roulette session, Weston refocused once again, this time turning his gaze across the Atlantic. The box set’s best album, Uhuru Afrika finds the pianist re-enlisting Liston and employing his most gigantic group yet. But even with 25 players, it’s not big-band business as usual: The music is not only harder and more percussive than anything Weston had done before, it also beat John Coltrane to large-ensemble Afrocentricism by a good six months. Three of the suite’s five sections begin with drum solosthe album features seven percussionists, including rhythm stars Max Roach and Babatunde Olatunjibut Weston doesn’t let the battery do the work for him. On “First Movement: Uhuru Kwanza” and “Third Movement: Bantu,” Weston drums at his keyboard as if it were a line of ebony-and-ivory bongos. And Liston’s charts often eschew the densely layered harmonies of Weston’s earlier albums, instead stabbing at single notes with unified force.
In between Uhuru Afrika and the box set’s final album, Highlife, Weston traveled to Nigeria for the first time, attending the Summit of African Culture in Lagos. His 1963 LP is named after Nigeria’s pop fusion of jazz, calypso, salsa, and West African folk song, even though no one will ever mistake it for a King Sunny Ade disc. Like its predecessor, Highlife views the continent’s music as one big aesthetic opportunity (cover blurb: “Music from the new African nations”). But in the pianist’s hands the cross-fertilization never feels opportunistic. The joyous, weaving horns on “Congolese Children” reconcile both heaven-seeking Nigerian juju and earthbound Louisiana brass-band marches. And on “Blues to Africa,” Weston’s ricocheting Mississippi Delta chords dovetail perfectly with the spaces between Archie Lee and George Young’s ramshackle Sahara rhythms. Exotica for a more nationalist era this ain’t.
“Sadly, Randy’s African-influenced work did not catch the cultural wave at the time,” Cuscuna writes, noting what might be the most glaring irony of Weston’s career. While many donned Afro-jazz fusion like some sonic dashiki (Art Blakey, Herbie Mann, and Donald Byrd, to name but a few), no one remained more committed to the cause than Weston. He took up residence in Morocco from 1968 to 1973 and then again in the mid-’80s, and he continues to record with African instrumentalists to this day. (This month, Weston releases a new disc with the Gnawa Master Musicians of Morocco.)
From this side of jazz history, it’s a mystery why Weston has never gained more attention. Perhaps it was just bad timing. Perhaps Weston’s self-effacing playing style succeeded better than he could have imagined. In the more just world that music critics habitually conjure to redress such wrongs, Randy Weston might set the record straight. Of course, with only 5,000 copies pressed, it’s not very likely. And that’s really too bad: If Weston’s music isn’t the ne plus ultra of unheard fusion, it’s as close as you can get before people actually start giving a damn. CP