Randy Weston and Billy Harper plus JD Allen Trio – 17 November 2014, Queen Elizabeth Hall

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Monday night’s concert was one of contrasts and confluences. With a less-than-full concert hall eagerly awaiting Randy Weston’s arrival, JD Allen and his trio put on a sterling performance of virtuosic strength and slick tunes. Allen is a tenor saxophonist from Detroit with numerous reputable recordings under the belt, but entered my listening sphere through Jaimeo Brown’s mosaic-style album ‘Transcendence’ (2013). Apart from a few moments of crunchy multiphonic playing, Allen’s sound is self-assured, silky smooth and filled this large reverberant space with no problem.

Each phrase, cluttered with bop vocabulary, ended with twirls of vibrato harking back to a bygone era – all of this on top of the blistering drumming of Jonathan Barber and rock-steady, if slightly overshadowed, bass playing of Alexander Claffy. Amidst fast high-hat drilling, free moments, and double-time grooves, this dense sound all comes to a close in a perfect moment: the only ballad of the set. The audience is still and the sax-heavy mix in this huge venue has now settled. What we hear is a perfectly balanced melancholy tune of great beauty. Though securely within traditional jazz language, Allen’s compositions lend themselves to his trio’s virtuosity and amidst all of the frenetic energy, moments of reflection and beauty do show through.

Reams have been written on the roots of the blues and African American musical links in Africa (and West Africa to be more specific). Musical outpourings across many a genre pay homage to this tie and it is from this that we can place the collaborative music of Randy Weston and Billy Harper. Based on their late 2013 release The Roots of the Blues, this set was a surprisingly fresh response to two personal conversations with this important continent. Starting with ‘The Healers’, Weston’s square and deliberate solo piano-playing displayed his characteristic respect for space and silence, and his percussive, Monk-like chordal attack. The great Billy Harper’s fluid tenor sound enters providing simple melodic responses to the frameworks outlined by Weston. Building up to some atonal and gruff arpegiated figures, the opening piece starts to thicken harmonically, and Harper’s distinctive phrasing and tuning preferences come to the fore.   

‘Blues to Africa’ followed (which Weston admitted was inspired by the walk of an elephant) and as the set developed, one witnessed a deepening interaction on stage. Harper’s solo musings beautifully squawked and moaned, and Weston’s pianistic touch bounced between agitated stacatto voicings and quieter, legato moments. This intimate duo setting allowed the space and time for conversing, but also aided those less familiar with the artists to get a sense of their respective styles. Though their music was scattered with demonically fast scalier lines, the two veterans brought a sense of space and reflection to the evening’s proceedings. Weston and Harper’s playful and unsentimental exploration of (mostly) West African musical idioms was honest and moving - providing food for thought and leaving many satisfied ears in their wake.

– Cara Stacey