Storied pianist and composer Randy Weston and his quintet stunned a Panama Jazz Festival audience with a thematically-lavish survey the jazz icon’s African-influenced repertoire. Photo by Mark Holston
Day four of the annual Panama Jazz Festival highlighted the influence of African culture on jazz and how Panamanian musicians use these stylistic touchstones to embellish their art.
Festival honoree Randy Weston and his quintet shared the bill with violinist Joshue Ashby and his group C3 Project. Based in the Caribbean port of Colon, the country’s second largest city and most important center of African-based traditions, the quartet took to the stage wearing white shirts and black vests singing a cappella. Supported by a guitarist, bassist and percussionist, the group ranged through a broad range of styles, from the blues, calypso and jazz to funk, gospel and music idioms derived from the rhythmic cadence of the tambora, a small hand drum used in folkloric music in the nation’s rural areas. The audience was packed with loyal followers who reveled in the band’s ability to deliver expressive and genuinely unpretentious music performed with a great deal of heart and virtuosity.
Weston and his quintet delivered one of the festival’s most memorable sets. Those who attended will long remember the hypnotic mood the pianist and his men delivered. Dressed in a striking blue linen suit and sporting a white Panama hat, the 90-year old jazz icon proved that he is more than just one of the last surviving members of his generation of notable musicians; he remains a virile force, still very much at the top of his game. “We always pay homage to Mother Africa,” he told the audience, paving the way for the two hour set’s 30 minute-long opener, “African Cookbook.” The Weston original was first recorded in a Paris session in 1969 and remains one of his most thematically potent works, rich in African-rooted rhythmic textures and dense sonorities voiced by woodwind artist T.K. Blue and trombonist Robert Trowers. The unit’s two other members, percussionist Neil Clarke and bassist Alex Blake, elicited some of the night’s most enthusiastic audience responses. Clarke was a perpetual motion machine, generating a barrage of complex rhythms from his four conga drums and other percussion instruments, while Blake often played his unwieldy instrument as though it were a guitar while singing and emitting volleys of joyous vocal shouts. Weston beamed broadly all the while, adding spare but precisely-placed rhythmic accents. When he launched his own solo forays, he may have reminded some of a slightly disjointed Duke Ellington in his approach to the piano — elegant and commanding yet decidedly more naturally organic in personality at the same time. Trowers provided a burnished, buttery sonic undercurrent with his trombone solos while Blue added a more spicy element with his darting alto sax and flute work. The evening at the Ateneo Theater that few wanted to end also including fresh readings of such well known Weston compositions as “African Sunrise” and “Hi-Fly,” his best known creation.
The festival continues tonight with vocalist Dominique Eade fronting an ensemble from the New England Conservatory, where she serves as a professor of voice, and a trio comprised of drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, pianist Gero Allen, and saxophonist David Murray.