Remembering Randy Weston: A Life in Music

Pianist Randy Weston, a player of abundant skill who helped build musical and scholarly bridges between jazz and African culture, died September 1 at the age of 92.

An NEA Jazz Master and composer of such standards as “Hi-Fly” and “Little Niles,” Weston left behind a trove of music that extends to nearly every corner of the jazz idiom, with early recordings that fit squarely into the Great American Songbook canon and later albums that incorporate African folk elements and contemporary American funk.

It would be impossible to summarize the legacy of such a towering figure in jazz history in just a few songs, but JAZZIZ hopes to distill at least some of his immense musical significance into this five-song remembrance. As you listen, feel free to browse this collection of articles JAZZIZ has written on Weston over the years.

“I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” originally from Cole Porter in a Modern Mood (Riverside, 1956)

This song, from pianist’s debut album, cuts to the core of what Weston was all about: fusing classic melodies to cutting-edge grooves. With what appears to be a simple piano-bass duo, Weston wrings every ounce of hipness from Porter’s original melody. His solo here is similarly invigorating, veering in unexpected musical directions.

“Little Niles,” originally from Little Niles (United, 1959)

“Little Niles” was written for Weston’s son, and was originally released on an album of the same name that featured liner notes by poet Langston Hughes. The song — arranged for a sextet that also featured bassist Ray Copeland, trombonist Melba Liston, saxophonist Johnny Griffin, trumpeter Idrees Sulieman and drummer Charlie Persip — conjures a musical mood that is both playful and mysterious. It companion song from the same album, “Pam’s Waltz,” was written for Weston’s daughter.

“Zulu,” originally from Highlife (Colpix, 1963)

Weston recorded the album Highlife in the wake of a 1961 trip to Lagos, Nigeria, as an ambassador of the American Society of African Culture. Much of the album derives its inspiration from the music of West Africa, particularly the upbeat “highlife” genre. “Zulu,” one of the album’s most popular tunes, channels some of that highlife energy into a straightahead jazz groove. The song is also an excellent showcase for Weston’s early improvisational style, which draws clear parallels to Thelonious Monk.

“The Mystery of Love,” from Khepera (Universal Music, 1998)

“The Mystery of Love” is the quintessential Randy Weston tune: soulful, exotic and irrepressibly groovy. Originally written by Ghanaian musician Kofi Ghanaba, this tune was used as Weston’s theme — played under his closing remarks during live performances— for some 40 years. This version, from 1998’s Khepera album, begins with an incantation of African percussion and a heart-bearing piano introduction from Weston before eventually giving way to the song’s trademark bass line.

“Hi-Fly (Live),” from The Storyteller (Live at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola) (Motéma, 2009)

Weston’s 2009 album The Storyteller (Live at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola) was among his last live recordings — and also one of his finest. Here, he revisits what might be his best-known tune of all time, “Hi-Fly,” with a sextet featuring Alex Blake on bass, Neil Clarke on percussion, Talib Kibew on reeds, Benny Powell on trombone and Lewis Nash on drums. The tune — and the set at large — has the feel of a career retrospective. It’s solemn, joyful, serious and playful all at once. Even at the tail end of his career, Weston’s playing retains focus and intensity. Those around him play with the notion that they are sharing the stage with a legend. They were, of course. 

Feature photo provided courtesy Carol Friedman

 

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