Preview: Randy Weston looks to Africa for inspiration

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"Music is the star, not Randy Weston," he says.

Not entirely true because someone has to play it, and the 87-year-old Brooklyn-born pianist, who has the designation of Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, will do so Saturday at the New Hazlett Theater with his African Rhythms Quintet as part of the Kente Arts Alliance's "Africa Calling" series.

It's no accident that Mr. Weston was approached to do this gig. After all, from the start he was encouraged to develop an affinity for that continent.


Randy Weston's African Rhythms Quintet

Where: New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Tickets: $30, or 1-888-718-4253.

"My dad had me reading about the great African empires when I was a child," Mr. Weston says. "Usually we never read how things start -- to do that you have to go all the way back. I had to go to Africa to find out."

Which he has done, traveling to that continent about a dozen times, touring 14 countries over his career and actually living in Morocco for a total of seven years, "listening to traditional music [and] being with traditional people."

So just what has the music of Africa contributed to Western culture? "Spiritual values, healing values -- you hear it in jazz, you hear it in blues" as well as in the black church, Mr. Weston says. "Our music has always been a healing force, not just notes and chords, [that was] giving people hope during the time of segregation and racism."

That influence, Mr. Weston says, has since pervaded music all over the world, whether in Brazil, Puerto Rico or Mississippi.

The continent has also influenced not only the music itself but also the instrumentation of his bands. In the 1940s Dizzy Gillespie connected with Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo, fusing jazz with Latin music -- both of which, of course, can be traced back to Africa.

"I've been using hand drums ever since," Mr. Weston says.

Mr. Weston owes his career largely to his father, who wanted him to play the piano.

"He made sure I had good teachers," Mr. Weston says. "That's a miracle, because I wasn't that good." And despite his interest in athletics, especially football and basketball -- Mr. Weston is 6-foot-7 -- "Dad made me stay on the piano."

But as far as music was concerned, "The competition was enormous," with the likes of Art Tatum and Errol Garner holding court. Starting his career as a leader at age 29, "I never thought I would be a professional pianist."

His ensemble also includes TK Blue, who plays alto and soprano saxophones and flute; trombonist Robert Trowers; bassist Alex Blake; and Neil Clarke on percussion. These days his bands generally don't use a trap drum set.

In addition, "I have a new CD coming out, 'Roots of the Blues' -- just piano and saxophone" with Billy Harper that will be released next month.

If Mr Weston has his way, listeners cannot help but be drawn in.

"We have a spiritual call-and-response," he says. "In Africa, the audience is never separated from the music."




Rick Nowlin: or 412-263-3871.

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