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Music Review: Randy Weston and his African Rhythms Sextet – The Storyteller

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Randy Weston has dedicated The Storyteller to the late trombonist Benny Powell and the reason is apparent within minutes. Powell’s presence, bold and arresting, astonishes as he tears into the meat of “African Sunrise.” He builds and creates on top of the groove, pulling and pushing with a flowing, magical spirit over the bridge.

Weston, ever the explorer and teller of tales, recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the release of Uhuru Afrika. A landmark recording in every sense of it, Uhuru Afrika took as its task the risky business of reconnecting African music to the world of jazz.

The Storyteller updates the journey, looking back with fondness at the building blocks of the beautiful synthesis and looking ahead with anticipation and joy.

Weston’s African Rhythms Sextet includes Powell, T.K. Blue, Alex Blake, Neil Clarke, and Lewis Nash. As a collective, they inhabit these pieces of music with raw vitality and fiery passion. As individuals, they stand strong and shine through solos and expressive blasting.

The Storyteller, recorded live at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in December of 2009, opens with Weston’s piano. “Chano Pozo” is dedicated to the song’s namesake, a frequent collaborator of Dizzy Gillespie and incredibly inventive percussionist. It may seem odd to dedicate a piece of solo piano to a percussionist, but rhythm flows through Weston’s playing and the groove is robust.

“The African Cookbook Suite” is perhaps the centrepiece of The Storyteller. This set of three pieces opens with Weston’s work on “Tehuti,” a dynamic number that calls to mind North African melodies. The second movement, “Jus’ Blues,” draws Powell and the other players into the mix for a blistering showdown that concludes with Nash’s unflinching, youthful drumming. “The Bridge” wraps the suite with Blake’s talkative, rhythmic bass.

“The Shrine” is a spiritual odyssey. Weston’s playing is suitably meditative, drawing the other players into prayerful portions all their own. The song, composed by Weston at the ripe young age of 71, is offered as a form of collective worship.

“Hi Fly” finds Weston and Powell connecting to transform the pianist’s hit number into a romantic ballad. The song has gone through a number of transitions over the years and continues to draw out new meaning with each peformance. “Fly Hi” suitably distils “Hi Fly” with a clever shout chorus and Clarke’s Afro-Cuban roll.

Weston is the stuff of unquestionable legend. With over five decades of creation and rejuvenation, the pianist and composer proves he can still fuel the senses with every organic move and potent groove. The Storyteller illustrates it once more, drawing the listener in to a live showcase of immortal presence, irrefutable power and undeniable connection.

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