Weston, Randy

Weston, Randy
▪ 1997

      At 205 cm (6 ft 8 in) tall, with hands so big that they covered an octave and a half on the piano, Randy Weston was a hard man to overlook. Even more imposing was his body of work—compositions and recordings as bandleader as well as soloist—in a career that spanned nearly half a century. Nevertheless, during the 1950s and '60s the waves of fashion had bypassed maverick pianists like Weston. With the popularity of "world music," especially African popular music, however, Weston arrived at the height of his career.

      "African Rhythms" was what Randy Weston called the music he played: "This music that you call jazz, or blues or spirituals all comes out of African civilization. We have a tree, at the root of which is African music with its infinite variety, and we have our masters—Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane—and from this trunk we spread out into branches." While Weston was unmistakably a jazz pianist, African scenes and themes inspired many of the pieces he composed. Characteristically, in his 1996 compact disc (CD) Saga, one of his finest, the throb of African percussion alternately provided musical interplay and undercurrent.

      Africa, in fact, had engrossed Weston for most of his life. Randolph Edward Weston was born April 6, 1926, in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he grew up; his father, of Jamaican ancestry, read books on African culture and took Randy to hear not only the jazz greats but also West Indian popular music. Weston studied piano, but he was in such awe of those musical masters that he did not begin his professional career until he was 23, a relatively advanced age for a jazz artist. His best-known compositions, "Hi-Fly" and "Little Niles," first appeared on his handful of recordings from the 1950s. The opportunity of a lifetime came in 1961: to play at a festival in Nigeria. After two more African journeys, Weston settled in Tangier, Mor., where he owned a nightclub in 1968-72.

      An outstanding concert of unaccompanied Weston piano solos at the 1974 Montreux (Switz.) Jazz Festival began his latter-day climb to fame. He returned to the solo piano medium for some of his finest work, including interpretations of Thelonious Monk, Ellington, and his own songs on three 1989 CDs. Both in solo and with his bands, he advanced Monk's and especially Ellington's concepts of freely spaced phrasing, dynamics, spontaneous arranging, and incorporation of African-derived rhythms. The result was a vividly original music rich in harmonic flavour, rhythmic subtlety, and drama. "From Duke I learned commitment, from Monk perseverance," said Weston. (JOHN LITWEILER)

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▪ American musician and composer
byname of  Randolph E. Weston  
born April 6, 1926, Brooklyn, N.Y., U.S.

      American jazz pianist and composer, noted for his use of African rhythms.

      Weston began playing piano in his youth and served in the U.S. Army before beginning his career about the age of 23. He began leading his own small groups, in nightclubs and concerts, and started recording in the 1950s, when he introduced his best-known compositions, “Hi-Fly” and “Little Niles.” Always interested in African culture, he first traveled to the continent to play in 1961, in Nigeria; after two further journeys to Africa, he settled in Morocco, where he owned a nightclub in 1968–72. His solo piano performance at the 1974 Montreux (Switzerland) Jazz Festival began his steady rise to fame. He subsequently appeared most often as a leader of small groups that he named African Rhythms.

      Weston's piano style was founded on hearty swing and boldly stated melodies. Long rests and spaces in his lines provide room for his rhythm sections to be heard and also help dramatize his rich, blues-based harmonies. To a large extent his style originated in the piano music of Thelonious Monk (Monk, Thelonious) and Duke Ellington (Ellington, Duke). His groups almost always included one or more hand percussionists, and complex African rhythms are integrated into his music. His repertoire consisted largely of original music; with orchestrator Melba Liston, he also crafted scores for larger jazz ensembles, and his important recordings include 1990 solo piano albums of music by Ellington, Monk, and himself.

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Universalium. 2010.

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