Scholarship has been implicit in Randy Weston’s music from the get-go. From rhythmic inspiration to melodic brainstorming, mama Africa and its mighty diaspora has guided the 90-year-old pianist’s art since he placed “Zulu” on his third album as a leader in the mid-50s. Now, after cutting more than 45 records, he gets explicit on a two-disc portrait of a 2012 NYC presentation. Uniting academics, writers and musicians, this amalgam of voices is an expressive overview of the continent’s cultural impact on civilization.
With dollops of erudition interspersed with the music itself, the show’s lay-out is novel – a multi-narrator TED Talk with particulars being cited in real time. I used the word presentation rather than performance above. Though ensemble efforts open and close the disc, an extensive string of solos and duets drive it, and they’re positioned as examples of specific historical turning points referenced in the commentary of Weston’s guests, such as Dr. Wayne Chandler. As it moves from Howard Johnson’s tuba resonating with the tones of Ethiopian forebears to the seductive drones of the Moroccan gnawa music to the flute and kora blend celebrating Gambian griots to Min Xiao-Fen’s delicate pipa strings dancing with Weston’s piano, they’re all unusually fetching.
The narrative arc is both pithy and inclusive. The leap between an African children’s song and the playful allusion to Tricky Sam Nanton’s jubilant trombone spotlights the music’s various pleasures. And Billy Harper’s fierce nod to Cleanhead Vinson injects a sensuousness into the action; it’s as reliable an energizer as Alex Blake’s explosive bass solo, which harks to the rhythms of Panama. By the time poet Jayne Cortez ignites the show with her fiery lines about women and their various forms of wisdom, Weston’s exultant history lesson has accomplished its goal of vivifying accomplishments galore.