San Francisco Hosts Jazz Festival Oct. 13-29
Improvisational piano great
Randy Weston leads the field
of legends and newcomers at
the 13th Annual San Francisco
By Nicky Baxter
Perhaps more than any other West Coast jazz program, the San Francisco Jazz Festival (Oct. 13-29) offers such a wealth of diverse talent that it is almost impossible to talk about "highlights" without leaving some worthy souls out of the picture.
This, the13th annual gathering of improvisational talent boasts a lineup that includes every imaginable idiom, from classic jazz to acid jazz, from New Thing to neo-Swing. Legendary performers like the Modern Jazz Quartet (Oct. 13 at the Masonic Auditorium), Cecil Taylor (Oct. 26 at the Center for the Arts Theater, Yerba Buena Gardens) and Wayne Shorter (Oct. 27 at the Masonic Auditorium) share the bill with upstarts like the Broun Fellinis (Oct. 14-15 at a block party on 11th Street between Folsom and Harrison) and the Splatter Trio (Oct. 16 at Club 36).
Although a veritable inkwell could be exhausted discussing any of these acts, pianist/composer Randy Weston (who appears Thursday, Oct. 19 at the Masonic Auditorium) deserves special mention. Through his explorations of continental African modes, he has redefined the borders of jazz and blues.
Weston, a Brooklynite who has resided in Ghana and Morocco, got his start working with the likes of trumpet great Kenny Dorham and saxophone hero Coleman Hawkins in the late 1950s. Steeped thoroughly in the compositional and pianistic traditions laid down by Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington, Weston is a potent instrumentalist who combines an emphatic sense of rhythm and harmony with melodic flair.
His earliest efforts evinced a pronounced fascination with an approach to playing that was both orchestral and sparse; as Little Niles, a widely lauded 1958 Blue Note date, strongly suggests, Weston knows when to play--and when to let silence speak.
Though his work has been inspired by Latin America, Caribbean and Asian sounds, for Weston, it all begins with Africa and the blues. In the liner notes toVolcano Blues (Polydor/Polygram), he argues that "the blues is Afrika's [sic] contribution to American music. It's probably the most ancient music that has ever existed."
Beginning more than 30 years ago with Little Niles, Weston has worked with arranger and former trombonist Melba Liston, allowing her to help shape his musical vision. Having played and arranged for the Basie big bands of the '50s, Liston knows a thing or two about jazzing up the blues. On sessions like the epic Spirit of Our Ancestors, Liston takes the pianist's compositions and sculpts them into soaring things of beauty.
Though physically restricted due to a severe stroke a decade ago, Liston continues her musical affair with Weston; the two are presently working on a project that includes strings, and she will be his featured guest arranger when his Volcano Blues Big Band blows up the spot at the jazz festival. Weston will perform solo and with his African Rhythms Trio.
The larger combo will showcase numbers from the Weston/Liston Volcano Blues collaboration, allowing Bay Area fans the rare opportunity to see and hear a performance that is true to its studio origins. Like the blues itself, the album is cast in a variety of subtle shadings. Things start off, appropriately, with just Johnny Copeland and his guitar--a simple but evocative Texas-styled blues recitation. By the time the journey has ended, Weston and Liston have explored an array of blue moods, from the Gnawan/Moroccan colorations of "Chalabati" and the itchy dancing pulse of "Kucheza Blues" to the more typical "Penny Packer Blues," which Weston composed for his daughter.
In between is a feast of big-band grooves firmly anchored to tradition even as they explore its outer reaches. "Volcano," a Count Basie staple in the '40s, is recast as a sprightly calypso number. "Harvard Blues" is another Basie composition, this time played straight. Originally sung by Jimmy Rushing, Copeland gives it his all, wrapping himself around the belly-rubbin' lyrics. Close your eyes and its Kansas City circa 1945 all over again.
For complete ticket and schedule information call 415/788-SFJF or link now to the Jazz Festival Web site.
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