The Randy Weston African Rhythms Trio
In New York

By Martin Longley

The incredibly tall Weston hunkers over his dwarfed piano, looking years younger than his eight decades ought to demand. He's in relaxed mode for this intimate late-night gathering on the opening night of his residency. The African experience has been central to the Brooklyn-ite Weston's musical life from a very early point, even though it took him a while to actually steep himself in the continent's reality. This is the smallest manifestation of Randy's African Rhythms concept, a trio that are all seeking to be percussionists, though only one of them officially inhabits that role. Neil Clarke sits surrounded by congas, with Weston choosing not to employ a conventional drummer, but bassist Alex Blake and the leader himself are almost equally concerned with rhythmic attack: the sharply struck string and the staccato pulse. This has become a regularly working unit, and it shows, in their intuitively connected state.

The African element exists as an attitude, a spiritual presence rather than an attempt to authentically deliver roots music from the continent. Although, Weston has, in the past, collaborated with, for instance, Moroccan Gnaoua master musicians. Curiously, there's a strong jazz standards foundation to the repertoire, and also a heavy ratio of African music as filtered through its Latin manifestations. Weston isn't emphasising his own strong songbook, though there's an early rendition of African Sunrise, but playing numbers by Machito and Duke, highlighting the music's ethnic fusions. Indeed, Caravan is the set's centrepiece, an extended journey that allows each member to amply display his wares. This does point out the trio's only problem, which is a tendency to be so democratic, and so concerned with solo expression that each piece tends to break down into a series of almost completely isolated grandstands, which risks removing the tune's overall momentum. Also, Blake and Clarke can't keep their mouths shut, vocalising almost all the time as they solo. These voice-and-instrument couplings are technically well-managed, but perhaps feel overdone as the set progresses.

 Randy Weston's African Rhythms Quintet plays at Ronnie Scott's in London, from 22nd to 24th November, as part of the London Jazz Festival...
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