An Essay on Randy Weston and Billy Harper’s Roots of the Blues, a CD on SunnysideRecords.com
by Laurence Svirchev
To get an idea of the breadth and depth of Roots of the Blues, take a look at a map of Africa. Geographically, the compositions cover the rivers Nile and the Niger, the land’s meeting points with the Atlantic ocean and Mediterranean sea, the forests and plains, the southern Sahara desert of Mali and Nigeria, the mountains of Atlas in the north. Only the areas running south of the cut line running roughly from Mozambique in the east to Angola in the West are not in the mix of compositions.
Randy Weston has travelled through all those places, making music with the great known-in-the west African musicians, as well as those who are familiar only to local people. In 1961 he made his first journey to Africa as a musician-pilgrim. He lived in Morocco and there owned a jazz club. He has returned to Africa to make music in multiple contexts, including invitations from African governments to celebrate their Uhuru and in tours sponsored by the US State Department.
Blood-line is one thing, experience is another. Many Black American musicians have visited Africa and been deeply influenced by what they saw and heard. But Randy Weston has gone deeper into discovering the most ancient traditions than any other American musician, restoring its universal appeal through the medium of jazz, and holding a steady course of presenting this music internationally over the course of more than half a century.
His constancy of intellectual integrity has caused him to receive three Honorary Doctorates of Music and be esteemed as Chevalier of the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. At the award ceremony, the French Ambassador to the United States addressed Weston formally and personally with these words: “The veritable osmosis which occurred in the mix of musical experiences and musical colors, and the realization that an entire age-old, rich culture had been thrown aside made you a true pioneer. African music. Thanks to the efforts of persons like you, it became known to the western world, and to France in particular, which today is so much influenced by these rhythms and chants. “
As an example of his research methodology, Weston desired that a representative African language be spoken on his 1960 Uhuru Afrika album. He spent time at the United Nations asking Ambassadors which language of Africa’s nine-hundred tongues would be the most suitable. Weston then chose Kishwahili which he and co-musicians studied under a Kishwahili professor. Modest and smiling, Doctor Weston never calls himself by that title: the furthest he will go is to tell us that he is a “story-teller through music.”
Given his eminence, perhaps no one is more truly qualified than Dr. Randy Weston to call an album Roots of the Blues. A strange contradiction in all this is that Weston plays an instrument that was not developed in Africa but is one which provides an orchestral sound that encompasses the frequency range of almost all other natural instruments. The bass of the piano invokes depth, emotional mystery, and the fundamental of rhythm. Those qualities are tied directly to the human feeling of being grounded to the earth. Bass frequencies are long waves, packing the power of the rising sun, rumbling freight-train locomotives, and the complex acts of walking or striding, both words being emblematic of fundamental jazz rhythms.
Weston has always had a tremendous affinity for the piano’s bass range, even when the the lowest tones are also covered by double bassists, for example with Alex Blake (on the 2005 trio album Zep Tepi) or with both Blake and Jamil Nasser (on the 1991 Spirits of Our Ancestors). On Roots of the Blues, Weston places even more emphasis on the bass clef of the Bösendorfer piano with its extra set of left end keys. Perhaps because, with his 87 year old ears, the bass clef is the part of the instrument that resonates most strongly in his body, and probably because he is emphasizing the absolute weight of African music that has come from the birthing place of humankind.
Dr. Weston’s composition “Timbuktu” may be the most abstract recorded piece in his formidable book. It is a tone-poem, but not in the Lisztian sense. There is no overt story, rather it is all reference to ancient history and myth that once was and still is. Timbuktu is located in the contemporary country of Mali at the south edge of the Sahara desert, about 20 kilometers north of the Niger River. Civilization in the region has been dated to about 3,500 years ago (the Iron Age), but history inscribes Timbuktu’s glory period to the intellectual and philosophical treasures created in there from the 13th to the 17th centuries.
The region surrounding Timbuktu has always been contended for by Africans, an area that flourished from the trade in salt, gold, ivory and slaves even before it was seen as an object of desire by by treasure-seeking Europeans. Even today, in the environmental process of further desertification, modern-day Mali, Niger, and Nigeria have not changed with the recent pseudo-religious and economic tugs of war and desecration of sacred tradition. Although plunderers surging south after the toppling of Libya’s Qaddafi practiced religious despotism and tried to destroy the intellectual treasures of the past, the leading families of the sub-Sahara continued their centuries old tradition of safeguarding the ancient writings, hiding them by burial and subterfuge. With the failure of this despotism, joy erupted on the sandy streets of Timbuktu and the first aspects of culture to asset themselves were the public performance of music, dance, and song. The tradition is preserved for the future, not by accident, but by design.
“Timbuktu,” only two minutes long, has a simple melody repeated several times. In that short time is compressed an intensity and emotional depth that requires the highest levels of improvisational mastery. The tonal centers are the deep-hued, sustained lower registers of piano and tenor saxophone. The piano bass is the anchor, powerful chords which linger in resonance until the vibration is almost stilled, and then are followed by another set of bass signatures. Throughout the two minutes, that deep resonance never leaves the sound stage, as if the earth were still trembling with memories of the past centuries.
On “Timbuktu” Billy Harper’s counterpoint tenor saxophone, which I speculate is played at times into the cavity of the piano, times his entry to play right over those fading piano chords, increasing his own volume and amplifying them with his raw edge until the river Weston flows in again. The momentum of the “Timbuktu” could be a gathering of force prior to an extended and medium tempo improvising composition like “Blue Moses” but Harper and Weston don’t open that door. Instead, “Timbuktu” is an abbreviated trance music, profoundly tantalizing, leaving the listener anxious for more.
If “Timbuktu” is an abstract tone poem, then “Blues to Senegal” is straight out of the traditional African-American call and response blues, complete with the walking bass. Here’s what I imagine: a man carefully checking his environment. When he is feeling secure, he canters leisurely down a country pathway, the countryside open, grassy, dotted by trees. His arms are loose and swing inside a denim shirt or a buba. On his head is a cowboy hat or a close skull-cap. No matter what continent he is on, he is walking to an event which could be a church, a mosque, a music concert or a voting booth. This man has confidence and a sense of purpose, and yes, he is alert to any rattler or human that might try to sideswipe him. It’s just the kind of song that really provokes the imagination, what with that tough, authoritative Texas tenor saxophone sound from Billy Harper.
Dr. Weston began his recorded & compositional career with songs dedicated to children, such as his own kids “Little Niles” and “Pam’s Waltz” from the 1958 album Little Niles. He seems to have had the knack to catch the exuberance of kids’ spontaneity, free-thinking, and free-acting. “Congolese Children” was first recorded on his seven-member horn section and four-member percussion section album Highlife in 1963, arranged by Melba Liston. He caught the mood during a trip to West Africa listening to the highlife club rhythms and then struck the melody and rhythm from a Bashai traditional song watching boys playing at a mission school near Lake Kivu.
Fifty-three years later (!), Weston’s reprise of “Congolese Children’s Song” in a duo setting takes the CD far from the somber “Timbuktu” and “Blues to Senegal”. For the opening melodic statement Weston keeps to the pitter-patter of kids romping. Billy Harper enters peekaboo, darting in and out with slight increases of volume, each reappearance as if he were a kid trying to divert attention while remaining hidden. Kids do that, right? Some call it ‘hide and seek’ or ‘catch me if you can.’ The gift of doing it is not too far from the adult process of jazz improvisation. “Congolese Children’s Song” sounds like a couple of cool, experienced cats having some ingenuous fun.
There are a several standards on Roots of the Blues, and Weston pulls a few tricks out on his masterly turnaround introduction of “Body and Soul”. There are also a couple of solo pieces on the CD, the first being Weston’s composition “Roots of the Nile”.
The second is Billy Harper’s “If One Could Only See.” Harper’s and Weston’s twin-optic partnership began in 1972 at the Tangier Festival of African and Afro-American Music. A couple of years later they recorded together on a Montreux festival concert session called Carnival. Harper figures prominently on The Spirits of Our Ancestors. With this kind of history, it is no accident they work together so marvelously on Roots of the Blues.
Harper is a prolific composer with his own history of connection with Africa, and this can be heard on CDs like Somalia. Spirituality has no bounds and Billy Harper’s commitment to soul and emotion can be heard listening to any of his recordings. The debut recording of the Italian label Black Saint was by Harper and it was called Black Saint. If one checks Mr. Harper on web sites like Youtube, there are a few videos of him leading large ensembles, including choirs. They are resoundingly lush, and from the looks of them, Mr. Harper himself coached the ensembles and choirs. Everything I have heard by the man carries the weight of quest, the aspiration to reveal the intensity of the positive side of the humanity through music.
Among his many compositions “If One Could Only See” is perhaps his best-known. This rendition is a lonely exposition, as if a man were crying in the desert for people to see what should be simply obvious, the need for peace on a planet filled with war. Or it could be a man pleading for the respect that is due to every man and woman. The melody is simple, the tone unambiguous, designed for introspection and even for tears.
Roots of the Blues is a must-hear for contemporary listeners, a reminder of the many faces of jazz and its origins by musicians with unique voices. The 14 tracks, the longest being 7:35, are just the right length to fulfill the compositional needs. If there is one thing missing, it is that I was left with a hankering to hear the masters extend and blow on a couple of them.
One final comment. The recorded output of Randy Weston is getting progressively slimmer precisely at the time when it should be getting fatter. For one, Weston’s key recordings are increasingly difficult to find. Two key recordings on Verve, the large ensemble recording spirits of our ancestors, and the trio CD Self Portraits are out-of-print. Mosaic records remastered and printed a 5,000 limited edition of recordings from 1957-1963, including Uhuru Afrika and Highlife. This set is also out of print.
Secondly, Sunnyside Records’ recording of Weston & Harper as a duet gives them an entrée to tour the world together. While both are also adept at the large ensemble. Weston is now concentrating on trio and duet recordings and these are too few and far between. Economics are no doubt an issue and limiting factor.
This is not to say that Weston is not thinking big. To the contrary, this grandmaster has been integrating his knowledge of American jazz and African music to give us new insights. I refer specifically to his performances of the “Nubian Suite” and the “Tribute to James Reese Europe”. I have no idea if the recordings of these concerts or others are in any kind of shape to be issued, but let us hope they will be. The breadth of Dr. Weston’s opus is spectacular. Given the importance of Dr. Randy Weston (born in 1926!) to the international musical community, a major label or foundation should throw some serious money at further recording & preserving, in high definition, his wisdom and his music for the ages.
For more on Randy Weston:
“The Autobiography of Randy Weston: African Rhythms” arranged by Willard Jenkins, Duke University Press, 2010.