With Zep Tepi Randy Weston demonstrates why he continues to be one of the elite musicians of the international stage. He has seen every change in the jazz world from the end of the swing and big band era, right through the be-bop period and the periods of free music. He grew up in Brooklyn, New York, exposed as a child in his family’s home to the likes of Count Basie and Duke Ellington. The rhythms of the Caribbean were the sounds of his community. His early compositions were often in waltz time, frequently written for children, and widely recorded by people like Cannonball Adderley. He moved to North Africa in the late 1960’s and in 1969 opened the African Rhythms Club in Tangiers. His time in Africa put him in direct contact with the deep roots of history that his father Frank Edward Weston educated him in, the cream of African musicians, and the spiritual Ganawa people. He has conducted his own deeply personal study of the history of African music and its influence on the rest of the world.
Only two prominent Afro-American musicians have fully explored the deep roots of the song and rhythm patterns of ancient African music with the compositional, melodic, harmonic, and instrumental innovations of American jazz, and then consciously and fully integrated them into their own music. One of them, clarinetist and composer John Carter died relatively young. Carter’s five CD series that explores the story of jazz from its African origins to its urban and free stages (Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music), is sadly out of print and badly needs re-mastering and re-issuing.
The other musician-composer is Randy Weston. His three-CD series of Self-Portraits, Portraits of Duke Ellington and Portraits of Thelonious Monk from the late 1980’s contains definitive interpretations of the two masters and once again demonstrated Weston’s superior compositional abilities. His 1991 double CD The Spirits of Our Ancestors put African rhythm combined with the avante-guard expressionism of Dewey Redman and Pharaoh Saunders back into the foreground. It also contains one of the last sessions in which John Birks (Dizzy) Gillespie recorded. His collaborations with Melba Liston dated from his 1958 recording “Little Niles” and even after she was semi-incapacitated by a stroke, Randy Weston asked her to arrange his stunning “Khephera” and “Volcano Blues” CDs .
Weston is now performing as much or more than in any period of his 80 year life. Concert listeners can testify that he is playing with an intensity and excitement that has not slowed down with age. Yet the name Randy Weston is absent from headlines these last few years, not because of any particular desire of his own, but because of the economics and vagaries of the music business. The “Portraits” series and The Spirits of Our Ancestors are out of print but fortunately the Mosaic label has re-issued some of his earlier records, including “Uhuru Afrika.” There is also another issue for Randy Weston’s subdued presence: he speaks persistently about the African roots of the music, a topic which is not very popular in these decades. How could Africa be seen as a source of musical culture and profound spiritual knowledge when it has been poverty-stricken and war struck for so many hundreds of years? Yet when I spent time in the poorest of the poor areas, the Sahel, in 2011, I found the most amazingly literate people who revered the ancestral musicians who played as if the desert winds spread ancient wisdom that emanated from the desert sands.
“Zep Tepi” is Weston’s first trio recording in decades to enhance his presence. Zep Tepi reprises in a trio context the history of Randy Weston’s music including “High Fly”, “Berkshire Blues”, “Blue Moses”, and “Portrait of Frank Edward Weston.” Weston frequently uses African words to name his recordings, and Zep Tepi translates as “First Time,” the name of the ancient Egyptian creation story. The co-musicians are long-time African Rhythms collaborators Alex Blake (acoustic bass) and Neil Clarke (percussion). This is a key point, for African Rhythms is a touring band. That means the three musicians have lived inside the compositions over a long period of time, constantly evolving their color and emotional depth.
Randy Weston’s piano style harkens back to the day when musicians did not have microphones to throw their sound. In those years, people like Earl Hines developed harmonic approaches that allowed them to be heard from the front to the back of concert halls and cut through the decibel levels of the brass. Weston chauffeured Thelonious Monk’s for several years and was able to observe at close hand in the New York clubs how Monk made the piano radiate with over- and under-tones.
A concise summary of Weston’s command of the instrument can be heard on “The Healer.” The composition is taken lentissimo with a few contrasting tempo shifts. It starts with a trinkle-tinkle quickly followed by a huge bass chord that he lets reverberate to complete decay while repeating the opening notes. He then returns exclusively to the treble for a short floating swing improvisation, establishing a mood of peace and tranquility, as if the mind is being settled for the healing process. Weston’s hands are enormous and his reach allows him to span the nine-foot breadth of the Bösendorfer keyboard with ease. This is not just a technical issue, for Weston has long had the imagination to use the extremes of the piano’s treble and the bass to create evocative moods.
“Blue Moses” encapsulates the burning concert pulse of Weston’s African Rhythms workout style. The composition opens as relatively formless piano explorations and deep-note glissading chords from the bass, precursors of the themes to come. The pace up to the fourth minute is taken with a slow, lilting bounce. The musicians then pause, as if taking a deep breath in preparation for the high-velocity ride across open ground that is to come. The velocity is taken about a third faster than version on The Spirits of Our Ancestors, a pace is akin to riding a bare-back camel in full-sprint across the desert. It takes strong thighs indeed for a rider to avoid being thrown by this beast.
Alex Blake holds a sustained bass pattern with tremendous control and strength. He uses two striking devices: the way he glissades the notes, giving them a resonating plasticity, and the way he percussively clicks the strings on the fret board. Blake is not particularly well-known to the public, but based on his aesthetics and chops, he certainly ranks in the 99.9th percentile of contemporary bass masters.
“Blue Moses” is thirteen-minutes long and filled with complex ringing piano tones, sometimes expressed as smashing chords, sometimes as quick successive strikes on individual keys (perhaps even one finger on two keys at the same time). Weston’s rhythmic senses leave the listener in two distinct time zones: one in which time is elastic, and one in which time is concise. The tangible oscillations within extremes is one of the characteristics that creates the complexity of emotion one feels while listening to Weston’s music.
Zep Tepi is wonderfully recorded. The miking of the piano puts the listener’s ears right on top of the strings with the ability to cinematically feel Weston’s of playing the bass, treble, and mid-ranges of the instrument. The vibrancy of the recording also extends to the Blake’s bass and Clarke’s kit. Clarke has an affinity for using wood blocks the way some jazz drummers might cast sound through the cymbals. Listen carefully to that approach on “Tamashi” (the word ‘soul‘ in Japanese). I found a special treat to hear the musicians sounding their vocal chords during the workout moments of the CD, even in hearing breath after the last notes of “Blue Moses” and “The Healer” have died away.
Zep Tepi is a living testament of the African sources of jazz music. But it is not fair to Weston to configure his work within the confines of jazz. While his music originates from what Ellington called “the music of my people,” Weston, like Ellington, transcends categories. Call Randy Weston’s music “universal.”
Note: Originally written in in 2006, updated in 2013.