Sunday, October 27, 2013

Randy Weston in Pittsburgh

Watching Randy Weston play last night, it was easy to feel like the audience had a direct connection to the masters of this music. The pianist talked about his journeys to Africa, where he insisted on each stop that he meet the oldest musicians that we around. "Because, if you go to Africa to see what it's like now, what's the point," he said. By doing that, it clued him in to the origins of all music, which has been passed on from generation to generation, up until now.

But on my end, his attack at the piano sounded at times like his late friend, Thelonious Monk. And it's different than seeing a good pianist who's listened to a lot of Monk albums and digested them and been shaped by them. Not to discount anyone who does that, but Weston was there, hanging out with Monk in New York learning directly from him. So when he played "A Ballad for T" as an homage to him, complete with some allusions to "Ruby My Dear," you could sense the direct line. It was one of the many moments last night at the New Hazlett Theater that felt pretty heavy.

Weston came with his African Rhythm Quartet - bassist Alex Blake, alto saxophonist TK Blue, trombonist Robert Trowers and percussionist Neil Clark. The sound mix was a bit of an issue early on. Clark had trouble hearing the piano, which could have been a little louder in the main mix too. But the group was still tight. Blake sat down during the whole set, leaning his bass towards him, and strumming it much of the time like it was a bass guitar, getting a series of double-stops going. He probably had all four strings ringing a lot too. Clark's performance alone provided enough to visual qualities to the show. He had three conga drums, a few splash cymbals (that he most often played with his hands), one other type of drum and a battery of percussion. Blue and Trowers were both great soloists too. The saxophonist playing with a bright, tart tone that went into a soulful high wail during "African Sunrise" after stirring the crowd up with a circular breathing riff that built in suspense. Trowers was great a helping the mood shift in dynamics when he had to follow Blue or Weston. The Weston classic "Hi Fly" was played like a ballad and Trowers got plenty of space to make it move.

Then there was the pianist himself, still a tall drink of water at 6'9" (according to his book). He knees practically came up to the same level as the keyboard when he was sitting down. He is one of those rare pianists who can hit a chord a certain way and fill the room with a musical authority. The electricity was present. During his "Hi Fly" solo, the guys in the band stood at the opposite edge, watching the pianist intently.

Weston introduced all of the songs, and despite the potential to let the stories go on and get in a dialogue with the audience, he kept things concise. As he said to both me and the interviewer in the Post-Gazette, "The music is the star, not Randy Weston."

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