Randy Weston

2004 Living Legacy Awardee

Color photo of Randy Weston.

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Image: Randy Weston. Credit: Courtesy of the artist.

After contributing four decades of musical direction and genius, Randy Weston remains one of the world’s foremost pianists and composers today, a true innovator and visionary. Encompassing the vast rhythmic heritage of Africa, his global creations musically continue to inform and inspire.

“Weston has the biggest sound of any jazz pianist since Ellington and Monk, as well as the richest most inventive beat,” states jazz critic Stanley Crouch, “but his art is more than projection and time; it’s the result of a studious and inspired intelligence…an intelligence that is creating a fresh synthesis of African elements with jazz technique.”

Randy Weston’s latest recording Ancient Future (Mutable Music) is a 2 disc solo piano recording that combines 16 solo piano recordings with 7 solo piano recording from 1984 that was released as BLUE on 1750 Arch Records produced by Thomas Buckner.

“In African music,” Randy Weston observed in a 1998 interview, “there aren’t the categories of the past, the present and the future. Music is a timeless thing.” He proves it every time he touches a piano or puts pencil to composition paper. Weston descends from a long line of seers who build on what the ancestors left us to create music of startling originality-music of the future. This is why Ancient Future (a title lovingly borrowed from Dr. Wayne Chandler’s new book “Ancient Future: The Teachings and Prophetic Wisdom of the Seven Hermetic Laws of Ancient Egypt”) so perfectly defines Weston’s approach to music and life. Like Dr. Chandler’s book, Weston’s music reveals the wisdom of the ancient world, where art, science, and spirituality were one, where music was not entertainment-for-sale but a life force at the core of civilization itself. Weston demolishes distinctions between traditional and modern, composition and improvisation, enveloping us with what really counts: the music’s spiritual essence. And what better way to capture the spiritual dimensions of this great music than Weston, in his solitude, singing, praying, meditating, and shouting, through the medium of Bösendorfer piano, which he transforms into a giant talking drum or a 97-string kora?

Ancient Future is a meditation on music’s origins. “I thought about Osiris,” Weston recalled, “when he was assigned to teach man about civilization and he used music to do it.” Spare, contemplative, Ancient Future is evocative of William Grant Still’s Africa (A Poem for Orchestra in Three Movements.)

The 1990’s witnessed a string of recording on Verve Records that exhibit Randy Weston’s pioneering musical aspiration. In 1999 Spirit! The Power of Music, Randy Weston African Rhythms Quintet and the Gnawa Master Musician of Morocco was released, 1998 saw the release of Khepera in which Randy Weston makes the connection between African and Chinese music, 1997 saw the release of Earth Birth featuring Randy Weston with The Montreal String Orchestra, 1996 saw the release of the critically acclaimed “SAGA” recording. In 1993’s Volcano Blues, Randy Weston teams up with longtime collaborator Melba Liston, and criss-crosses the Atlantic chronicling the originations and destinations of the genre of African-American Music.

In 1992 Randy Weston recorded The Splendid Master Gnawa Musicians of Morocco. Never in the history of Moroccan culture have their ever been nine hag’houges (guinbres) together with two percussionists. Each master sang his own song; after each one finished another continued. It was a historic moment.

Randy Weston’s musical odyssey is another installment in an already amazing body of work. In 1991, he told the story of the roots of the blues on Spirits of Our Ancestors (Antilles). The two-CD set was hailed for its concept as well as its musicianship. Robert Palmer wrote in Rolling Stone, “Spirits is the kind of ‘jazz’ record that, like Miles’ Kind of Blue, connects with anyone who hears it. Listen up.”

The culmination of Randy Weston’s rich musical offerings has resulted in the following awards: In 2001 he received the America Jazz Masters Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2000 he received the Arts Critics and Reviewers Association of Ghana (ACRAG) Black Music Star Award. In 1999 Harvard University honored him with a 1 week residency and tribute concert. In 1997 he received The French Order of Arts and Letters, and in 1995 The Montreal Jazz Festival gave him a 5 night tribute. He also won Composer of the Year from Downbeat Magazine in 1999 and 1996.

Randy Weston, born in Brooklyn, New York in 1926, didn’t have to travel far to hear the early jazz giants that were to influence him. Though Weston cites Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Art Tatum, and of course, Duke Ellington as his other piano heroes, it was Monk who had the greatest impact. “He was the most original I ever heard,” Weston remembers. “He played like they must have played in Egypt 5000 years ago.”

Randy Weston’s first recording as a leader came in 1954 on Riverside Records Randy Weston Plays Cole Porter. It was in the 50’s when Randy Weston played around New York with Cecil Payne and Kenny Dorham that he wrote many of his best loved tunes, “Saucer Eyes,” “Pam’s Waltz,” “Little Niles,” and, “Hi-Fly.” His greatest hit, “Hi-Fly,” Weston (who is 6′ 8″) says, is a “tale of being my height and looking down at the ground.”

Randy Weston has never failed to make the connections between African and American music. His dedication is due in large part to his father, Frank Edward Weston, who told his son that he was, “an African born in America.” “He told me I had to learn about myself and about him and about my grandparents,” Weston said in an interview, “and the only way to do it was I’d have to go back to the motherland one day.”

In the late 60’s, Weston left the country. But instead of moving to Europe like so many of his contemporaries, Weston went to Africa. Though he settled in Morocco, he traveled throughout the continent tasting the musical fruits of other nations. One of his most memorable experiences was the 1977 Nigerian festival, which drew artists from 60 cultures. “At the end,” Weston says, “we all realized that our music was different but the same, because if you take out the African elements of bossa nova, samba, jazz, blues, you have nothing. To me, it’s Mother Africa’s way of surviving in the new world.”

Randy Weston (1926-2016)

*Bio from Award presentation.