World on a String
The last time I saw Randy Weston, he concluded a conversation about a holy trinity of pianists with a proclamation of solidarity. “I’m like you,” he told me. “I’m a fan. I’m doing this for Mr. Ellington, Mr. Tatum, and Mr. Monk.” Weston, who calls his ensemble African Rhythms, is really less about a romanticization of the motherland than about combining distant origins with local traditions, with titles like “African Village Bedford Stuyvesant” bringing it all back home—and abroad. After recording The African Beat, Art Blakey concluded that jazz “doesn’t have a damn thing to do with Africa.” Weston does have a damn thing or two to do with Africa, but despite a few congas and dashikis, his CDs should not be in the “world music” section but firmly and emphatically in jazz, for he has more to do with our own country’s master musicians than he does with Joujouka’s.
Weston was in masterful form himself on January 15 when he took the stage at the Jazz Standard with an ensemble that included not only usual partners in crime, multi-reedist and musical director TK Blue, trombonist Benny Powell, bassist Alex Blake (who nearly body-slammed his instrument to bits), and percussionist Neil Clarke, but a guest soloist, Grammy-nominated violinist Regina Carter, whose own international journeys with Paganini’s favorite Guaneri made her a Genovese folk hero and a subversive. When Carter shook up Italy’s tradition, she was also affirming hers, and it was on display with virtuosity onstage with Weston. On Weston classics like “The Healers,” “Blue Moses,” and “Blues for Africa,” Carter’s bowing lyricism complemented Weston’s two-fisted post-Monkian presence, as huge as any living jazz pianist. Towering at 6-6 with hands as huge as catcher’s mitts, Weston reminded me of Philip Roth’s description of the Russian pianist Yefim Bronfman: he was “looking less like the person who is going to play the piano than the guy who should be moving it.” Weston certainly moved the piano that night, with bluesy, Beethovenian gusto that has only grown wiser in his 76 years. Weston may be doing what he does for Messrs. Ellington, Tatum, and Monk, but Mr. Weston reminded us that he is himself a force worth invoking. —David Yaffe
“Now, I think we’re onto something!” declared bassist Ben Allison. He’d just worked through an unrehearsed version of his tune “Little Boy” with clarinetist Don Byron, a musician he has long admired. Allison smiled like, well, a little boy, one who had just gotten a neat surprise, as they launched into Byron’s “Lefty Teachers at Home.”
“Possible Fireworks,” an every-first-Tuesday-of-the-month series at Brooklyn’s BRIC Studio, is all about neat surprises. Producer Janine Nichols had a simple concept: Pick a leading New York jazz musician, ask him to pick a player or two to join in for an unrehearsed set, then call ’em up. Only one rule: You can’t pick someone you’ve played with before.
Musicians often do this sort of thing, just usually behind closed doors. And the door to BRIC Studio—right next to BAM’s Harvey Theater—isn’t that easy to find, but it’s worth opening. Once inside, up a flight of stairs, you’ll find a secret space, enshrouded by black curtains, with café tables and a tiny bar at the back.
Early editions were sparsely attended, but word of mouth has built a growing crowd. So it’s fortunate that technicians have silenced a hum from an upstairs glass-blowing studio furnace that, at first, marred the acoustics. By now things are refined—but not overly so. When an audience member’s cell phone blurted out at the show’s start, Byron built a descending scale in its key to start things off. And though Allison brought sheet music to the gig, little of what was played referred strictly to the page. Some tunes devolved into catchy vamps, built for improvisation.
Previous series installments have showcased underrated New York stars, like the explosive violinist Billy Bang and the restlessly inventive guitarist Brandon Ross. And the instrumentation is sometimes odd: On February 4, percussionist John Hollenbeck will perform with a trio of accordionists, which should ignite some especially jagged sparks. —Larry Blumenfeld