Placing Randy Weston into narrow, bop-derived categories only tells part of the story of this restless musician. Starting with the gospel of bop according to Thelonious Monk, Weston has gradually absorbed the letter and spirit of African and Caribbean rhythms and tunes, welding everything together into a searching, energizing, often celebratory blend. His piano work ranges across a profusion of styles from boogie-woogie through bop into dissonance, marking by a stabbing quality reminiscent of, but not totally indebted to, Monk.
Growing up in Brooklyn, Weston was surrounded by a rich musical community: he knew Max Roach, Cecil Payne, and Duke Jordan; Eddie Heywood lived across the street; Wynton Kelly was a cousin. Most influential of all was Monk, who tutored Weston upon visits to his apartment. Weston began working professionally in R&B bands in the late '40s before playing in the bebop outfits of Payne and Kenny Dorham. After signing with Riverside in 1954, Weston led his own trios and quartets and attained a prominent reputation as a composer, contributing jazz standards like "Hi-Fly" and "Little Niles" to the repertoire. He also met arranger Melba Liston, who has collaborated with Weston off and on into the '90s. Weston's interest in his roots was stimulated by extended stays in Africa; he visited Nigeria in 1961 and 1963, lived in Morocco from 1968 to 1973 following a tour, and has remained fascinated with the music and spiritual values of the continent ever since. In the '70s, Weston made recordings for Arista-Freedom, Polydor, and CTI while maintaining a peripatetic touring existence -- mostly in Europe -- returning to Morocco in the mid-'80s.
However, starting in the late '80s, after a long recording drought, Weston's visibility in the U.S. skyrocketed with an extraordinarily productive period in the studios for Antilles and Verve. Among his highly eclectic recording projects were a trilogy of "Portrait" albums depicting Ellington, Monk, and himself, an ambitious two-CD work rooted in African music called The Spirits of Our Ancestors, a blues album, and a collaboration with the Gnawa Musicians of Morocco. Weston's fascination with the music of Africa continued on such works as 2003's Spirit! The Power of Music, 2004's Nuit Africaine and 2006's Zep Tepi, The Randy Weston African Rhythms Trio. In 2010, Weston released the live album The Storyteller which featured the then 84-year-old pianist in concert at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, as part of Jazz at the Lincoln Center. ~ Richard S. Ginell