May 29, 2010 concert reviewed by Ronald K. Baker.
Chalk up another stellar concert organized by BerkshiresJazz.org, presented in an intimate, perfect venue – the Berkshire Museum’s Little Cinema auditorium. The museum’s 9-foot Steinway Grande piano got a good workout courtesy of the power and technique of the towering artist, Randy Weston, as he played his African Rhythms concert along with bass player, Alex Blake.
(Watch a video clip from the concert at BerkshiresJazz.org.)
By way of introduction, Mr. Weston spoke of the spirit as being the foundation of all his music. Music is everywhere in nature, he said, and nowhere is that spirit more evident than it is in Africa. The concert opened with Blue Moses, a Moroccan piece that set the tone for the rest of the evening. After a free-flowing introduction, the bass came in and joined Weston’s thundering octaves and fifths as he milked the low range of the piano.
It turns out that bassist Alex Blake is a percussion section unto himself. His dominant foot stomping was tireless, commanding, and engaging. Against this obstinate continuum, he provided a mix of elemental drum sounds through a range of dazzling techniques. Subtle bongo sounds rippled from the fingers of his left hand tapping gently on the neck of his instrument. Louder accents and percussive pops sprang from the palm of his right hand as he slapped here and there along the entire length of the fingerboard. For the most exclamatory, he’d pluck the lowest string with such force that it created a resounding whack akin to the crack of a whip.
While accompanying Weston, Blake proved himself a repository of provocative rhythms, often strumming the bass as though it were a guitar. He coupled this technique along with double and triple stops in order to create chords, most notably in his solos. And he had one more trick up his sleeve, both figuratively and literally. He wore a smooth metal bracelet on his right wrist. Whenever he wanted a loud smack to punctuate a phrase, he would slap the lower part of the fingerboard with the bracelet simulating a rim shot on a snare drum. It clearly was yeoman’s duty, and, as Weston gazed at him bemused, the array of sounds Blake achieved was masterful. He threw himself bodily into each piece like a whirling dervish with an intensity that left him visibly winded. The audience erupted repeatedly into spontaneous applause.
Randy Weston’s playing seemed effortless in contrast; he was the picture of coolness in his understated, gray silk shirt, matching kufi cap, black slacks and wingtips sans socks. He was gracious guide introducing each work along with some tidbits of history of African music as well as of slavery. His compositions – exotic voyages – contrasted delicate, evocative passages with explosive fortissimos that filled the hall. Overall, his style recalls Ahmad Jamal more than it does Oscar Peterson.
But since his pieces are largely bereft of repeated melodies, his improvisations rarely drew applause, as even some of the hippest jazz listeners seemed scarcely able to discern the divergence of theme from variation. No matter. It made for rapt attention. And judging from his own appreciative smiles and self-effacing demeanor, Randy Weston probably would have considered clapping an unnecessary distraction anyway.