June 13, 2024

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Randy Weston, pianist who traced Africa in jazz and blues, dies at 92: Photos, Video

Randy Weston, who died today at 92, was a jazz pianist. There, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let me tell you why he was so much more than a “jazz pianist.”

Well before World Music became a trend, and then a marketing term, Weston was creating a personal, deeply spiritual style of music that assimilated West African, Moroccan, and later Egyptian and East Asian elements. Although he was a Brooklyn boy through and through, he did live in Morocco for a few formative years and over the course of his career would frequently perform with that country’s Gnawa musicians. (The Gnawa are the traditional music healers of Morocco, famous for playing trance-inducing rhythms that can run all night.)

In his later years, at a time when many musicians are either retired or retrenched (or dead, as was the case with most of Weston’s generation of jazz legends), he was exploring new sonic avenues, incorporating instruments like the Chinese pipa, or lute. He also continued to play live right up to this spring, when he did a series of birthday concerts in New York that showed the range of his interests, with different ensembles each night.

I looked up to Randy Weston. Most people did, unless they were NBA stars. He was tall enough to be a basketball player himself (“I didn’t like practicing,” he once told me when I asked why he didn’t go that route). But it’s hard to look at his body of work, from his piano standard “Hi-Fly” to his work with Morocco’s master musicians, created and sustained over a career of almost 70 years, and not be impressed. He was also a genuine, gracious man with a ready laugh, which helped make him a regular welcome guest in our studios over the years, and this show was his final appearance. With his birthday approaching, we took the opportunity to look back as well as ahead.

The American pianist, composer, innovator, and “Legend of Jazz,” Randy Weston, joins us to play some of his solo piano works – many of which border on ritual blues with a dash of Ellington stride here and there a crashing note cluster of Thelonious Monk in mind. His latest recording is a two-album set called Sound, which contains many of his own compositions, recorded when he was 75 years old, back in 2001. In advance of his 92nd birthday, he honors our studio once again.

Randy Weston, an esteemed pianist whose music and scholarship advanced the argument — now broadly accepted — that jazz is, at its core, an African music, died at his home in Brooklyn on Saturday.

His death was confirmed by his lawyer, Gail Boyd, who said the exact cause was still being determined.

On his earliest recordings in the mid-1950s, Mr. Weston almost fit the profile of a standard bebop musician: He recorded jazz standards and galloping original tunes in a typical, small-group format. But his sharply cut harmonies and intense, gnarled rhythms conveyed a manifestly Afrocentric sensibility, one that was slightly more barbed and rugged than the popular hard-bop sound of the day.

Early on, he exhibited a distinctive voice as a composer. “Hi-Fly,” which he first released in 1958 on the LP “New Faces at Newport,” became a standard. And he eventually distinguished himself as a solo pianist, reflecting the influence of his main idol, Thelonious Monk. But more than Monk, Mr. Weston liked to constantly reshape his cadences, rarely lingering on a steady pulse.

Randy Weston performing at a Highlife Session in April 1963. Mr. Weston’s playing and composing emphasized the African roots of jazz, including in such albums as “Little Niles” and “Uhuru Afrika” (Swahili for “Freedom Africa”).

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Watch the full session:

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