Last Saturday night, as many University students were changing into costumes for Eclectic’s annual Halloween party, a different kind of transformation was taking place inside Crowell Concert Hall. Behind its doors, legendary pianist and composer Randy Weston created music that crossed cultural and temporal boundaries and no doubt transformed the way audience members listened to music.
Accompanied by bassist Alex Blake and percussionist Neil Clarke, Weston drew on influences ranging from jazz, the blues and African tribal music. But perhaps “accompanied” is not the right word; unlike standard jazz trios featuring a headliner, this performance was nothing short of an extensive collaboration.
Returning to piano trio format after playing for over three decades in other set-ups, Weston appeared to be in his element. His delicate but deliberate phrasing on the piano initiated a conversation between the three instruments. Clarke’s use of African percussion in favor of a trap drum kit shook the audience free of any preconceived notions of what jazz improvisation should sound like. Congos and shakers in place of snare drums and cymbals gave a unique flavor and personality to the trio’s massive sound, the likes of which have not been heard from anyone else.
Such flavor is no doubt an influence on one piece titled “African Cookbook (2007 Version).” Opening with a long, dramatic piano solo played in the lowest register (as is much of Weston’s music), the piece incorporates Blake’s strumming attack and Clarke’s driving rhythms to create a wild piece that is jazz at its fiercest.
“Randy Weston’s trio traveled beyond the realm of traditional jazz texture and structure,” said George Pritzker ’10. “I was particularly mesmerized by Alex Blake’s unconventional use of the double bass“strumming, striking and treating it like a percussion instrument.”
Indeed, the musicians blurred the lines between what makes each instrument unique. Blake rapidly strummed his bass strings like a guitar and slapped its sides to accent his frequent scat-singing and chanting; Weston struck the piano keys with such deliberation as to make it sound like slapping a drum; and Clarke’s masterful percussive flow sounded nothing short of a beautiful, piano-like melody.
In a 1998 interview, Weston said that in his playing, “there aren’t categories of the past, the present and the future. Music is a timeless thing.” And it is perhaps this mentality that explains how his music is at once classical and innovative. In a piece entitled “Anu Anu,” inspired by the Nubian people of pre-Egyptian civilization, Weston merges Nubian influences with his biggest inspiration, Thelonius Monk. The improvisations in “Anu Anu,” as with all pieces played in the performance, danced around a beat rather than followed one. Oftentimes, Clarke and Blake would keep playing with their rhythmic narratives, even after the piece was formally over. “It’s hard to let go of the rhythms sometimes,” Weston laughed.
For some students, the cascading waves of sounds were cathartic. Jake Gold ’09, a Music major, spoke with fervor about the performance: “There were beautiful compositions and smokin’ improvisations,” he said. “Best Wesleyan show this semester. They were beasts!”
Perhaps Gold wasn’t the only one feeling awakened. Weston’s trio received standing ovations at both the intermission and the conclusion of the performance.