Randy Weston 06/04/26 – 01/09/18

Randy-Weston-Roger-Thomas

Like several prominent African-American jazz artists, pianist Randy Weston, who has died at the age of 92, had Caribbean heritage. Born and raised in New York to a Panamanian-Jamaica father and mother from Virginia, Weston chose to make Africa the foundation of his cultural and musical identity in a glorious career that spanned seven decades. The historical magnitude of Weston's life is summarised by the fact that he is one of the few people to have had conversations with Duke Ellington in the inter-war period and Jason Moran in the millennium, and just a week prior to his passing, Moran, when in London to rehearse for his forthcoming James Reese Europe project, waxed lyrical about both Weston's work and his socio-political stance.

Inspired by Africa as a source of ancestry, creativity and modernism Weston spent much time in Nigeria and in the late 1960s relocated to Morocco, where he ran a club. Weston was a giant of a man whose knees would jut conspicuously above the keyboard anytime he sat down to play, but he cut a very graceful figure. As a pianist Weston came from the wellspring of Ellington, Monk and Tatum, but went on to swim in his own stream of ideas when he explicitly brought both the pulse and sound of African drumming into his performances. The sharp percussive drive Weston drew from the keyboard was enhanced by the input of conga and djembe players on many of his recordings such as the stupendous early 1970s sets African Cookbook, Blue Moses and Tanjah. Yet, he was also capable of tremendous understatement too. His interpretation of Guy Warren's 'Mystery Of Love' is a magical piece of music, as much for the ambience Weston creates through the use of deeply resonant ascending chords that linger over a modal vamp as it is for the delicate improvisation, which is mindful of the poised, contemplative nature of the piece.

Weston's gifts as a composer in his own right are epitomised by the evergreen 'Hi-Fly', a samba-inflected number that has sunshine bursting from its melody, while his most ambitious orchestral work remains the seminal 1961 album, Uhuru Afrika. Bolstered by arrangements from trombonist Melba Liston, the suite was a bold statement on behalf of African liberation movements in the twilight of colonialism, and featured poetry by Langston Hughes as well as narration by Tuntemeke Sanga, a Tanzanian activist who lobbied the United Nations. The record, feted by the American jazz press, was banned in South Africa for its pro-black sentiment.

Weston's ongoing interest in large ensembles led to 2017's African Nubian Suite, but he was also a brilliant partner for saxophonists. He recorded The Healers with David Murray in 1987 and was last seen at the London Jazz Festival in 2014 with Billy Harper. Weston's solo set Blues To Africa is a touchstone for many pianists, while his great generosity and spirituality won the hearts and minds of many the world over.

Kevin Le Gendre
– Photo by Roger Thomas

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