Randy Weston African Rhythms Sextet takes audiences on an African journey of artistry 

Magical, Healing Waters

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William Struhs

Langston Hughes, once said, “When Randy Weston plays, a combination of strength and gentleness, virility and velvet, emerges from the keys in an ebb and flow of sound, seemingly as natural as the waves of the sea.” Last night, Spoleto audience members had the opportunity to experience Weston’s brilliance firsthand. The legendary 90-year-old pianist and composer Randy Weston looked very relaxed and joyful in his straw hat, dark glasses, and a loose beige suit. His sextet, made up of, as he told us, “the best musicians in the world”, T.K. Blue (alto saxophone and flute), Alex Blake (string bass), Neil Clarke (African percussion), Billy Harper (tenor saxophone), and Lewis Nash (drums), joined him.

Before playing “The Healers,” Weston spoke of the spirituality of music and of music having origins in Africa, where early ancestors listened to Mother Nature’s rhythms of insects and animals. “The Healers” made me imagine floating down an African river. Its meandering soulfulness reminded me of Hughes’s poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”:

I’ve known rivers:/Ancient, dusky rivers./ My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”

In this song and in others, T.K. Blue plays a mean flute — strong and masculine in a way I’ve never heard one played. Clarke’s accompanying African percussion instruments (he had so many!) made sounds of wind, water, crickets, and snakes. It was fun to watch him and to see what he’d pull out next. I could have listened to Billy Harper’s tenor sax all day — you feel you’re in the hands of a genius, one who never plays a false note.

The sextet also played “African Sunset,” written with Dizzy Gillespie (one of Weston’s friends and influences) in mind. Weston explained that the song was commissioned by the Jazz Institute of Chicago in the '90s and played at the Chicago Jazz Festival. The piece, like the first, begins slow and soft, then came to life. My favorite moments in the performance were when Weston smiled, as he did here, attuned to what magicians his musicians are and still surprised at what they’d come up with. At times he even stopped playing and danced at his piano. He clearly loves what he does and celebrates his fellow artists.

The sextet also played “Little Niles,” a song Weston wrote for his son, a drummer who died in 2006, and “Niger Mambo,” which Weston dedicated to his wife. The mambo was a nice contrast to some of the slower-starting pieces. It made you want to dance.

Compared with the René Marie show a few nights ago, this performance had a different feel: it seemed more of a set show than Marie’s improvisational back-and-forth style of dialoguing with the other musicians. Perhaps because of this, and because many of the pieces began slowly, some people left before the performance was over. Still, what was unique to this performance was that there were definite moments of uninhibited flow; each song worked up to an ecstatic pitch, a maelstrom of sound, except for the final piece, which was soothing and easy like a lullaby, to send us on our way.

An audience favorite was the string bass player Alex Blake, who seemed completely unselfconscious as he strummed and scatted to his instrument; it was if he were relating to his bass as to another person. I felt the audience lean forward each time he got going. One guy behind me said, “I’ve never seen anyone do that before.” As for me, I’d never seen anyone drum like Lewis Nash. The way his hands punctuated syncopated rhythms with such exactness reminded me of a dancer like Gregory Hines or Savion Glover. Another crowd favorite was Neil Clarke, especially when he performed a frenetic solo towards the end, inviting the audience to clap in response to his chief-like drumming.

One of Weston’s themes is the spirituality and magic of music. It was appropriate, therefore, that the group’s background lighting was, for most of the performance, purple, a color that denotes enlightenment. Weston told us, “We are all musicians” in the beats of our hearts, the music of our voices. Weston spent many years in Africa, then toured 14 different countries, including Beirut and Lebanon. He spent time with musicians who were also healers — who, he said, were able to “break through barriers of racism and stupidity.” It seems fitting that, at this time in our nation, state, and city’s history, Charleston hosts and supports such healers.


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