There aren't many living jazz musicians who can state that the great poet Langston Hughes wrote about them, but pianist Randy Weston is one of those fortunate few. Of Weston's 1960 album Uhuru Afrika, Hughes wrote, "When Randy Weston plays, a combination of strength and gentleness, virility and velvet emerges from the keys in an ebb and flow of sound seemingly as natural as the waves of the sea."
It's a fitting description of Weston's percussive, infectiously rhythmic style of playing, a style that he's used for over seven decades to build one of the most astounding resumes in jazz. He's a two-time Grammy nominee, a two-time winner of Down Beat magazine's Composer Of The Year award, he's received the NEA's highest honor for a jazz musician, the Jazz Master award, and he's been awarded the French Order Of Arts & Letters, among a long list of others. He's also worked with Charles Mingus, Art Blakey, Cecil Payne, Johnny Griffin and Elvin Jones, among a virtual encyclopedia of jazz names.
Though Weston has played in many different contexts over his 50-plus album career, his focus has often returned to the Afro-Cuban jazz popularized by Dizzy Gillespie's big-band in the 1940's. Often working with tenor saxophonist Billy Harper, Weston has returned to the well of African music many times over his career, especially after moving to Morocco in the late 1960s. Weston's work with his African Rhythms Sextet traces the history not just of jazz, but of all music back through the centuries, and Weston has often had Harper by his side for that exploration.
"He's got that Texas sound, you know?" Weston says of Harper with a chuckle. "For some reason, many great tenor sax players come out of Texas, and Billy's got this big, powerful sound. You feel the blues, you feel the spirit of the black church, and you feel the spirit of the great musicians he's played with, because he's played with everybody. My first experience playing with Billy was actually in Tangiers, Morocco, when we played a festival there, and then he became part of Max Roach's group, but I just love his saxophone. His sound has been very important to my music."
African percussion has also been an important part of Weston's music, and he's always featured a percussionist alongside a drummer in the African Rhythms Sextet. "I fell in love with that sound in the late 1940s when I heard the great Dizzy Gillespie," Weston says. "He had the great (percussionist and composer) Chano Pozo playing with him, and when I heard that great Afro-Cuban drumming in Dizzy's big band, it was just instant love ever since."
Weston says that everyone in this Sextet, which in addition to Harper also includes saxophonist T.K. Blue, bassist Alex Blake, African percussionist Neil Clarke and drummer Lewis Nash, strives to both play in the moment and pull from the rich history of their music. "Every moment, every place we play, these musicians are all interested in the origins of the music," he says. "How did this begin in the first place? You go back 1,000 years and study the music of Africa, the animals and insects, it's all part of Mother Nature. So when we perform, we give everything, that's for sure, but we're telling stories about the foundation of music itself. We try to capture that spirit from traditional Africa."
The idea of spirit is an important one in Weston's music, as is the concept of communication. "You see, we're very spiritual," he says of the Sextet. "You take that incredible spirit from the black church, and we try to capture that and go our own way. And we trust each other and listen to each other intently. When you get on that stage, it's serious, you know? We laugh and tease each other, but we're very serious about the music. We listen to each other and we're inspired by each other. And the music is like Mother Nature. Mother Nature changes every day, and our music does the same. We take the same song and we can play it so many different ways at different particular times, or a particular country or concert hall. That's the beauty and the magic of music itself."
And Weston sits at the center of it all on piano, an instrument that he says can be just as percussive as it can be melodic. "That's one of the things that you can do with a piano," he says. "The piano is such a magnificent instrument. You've got percussion, you've got harmony, you've got melody, you can do so many different things with a piano."