Randy Weston and Billy Harper

RANDY WESTON AND BILLY HARPER

“The Roots of the Blues”

(Sunnyside)

New York Times – November 19, 2013

 

The pianist Randy Weston and the tenor saxophonist Billy Harper share an implicit understanding of jazz as both a spiritual art and a social act, worth taking seriously more for pragmatic than scholarly reasons (but those, too, up to a point). Their musical acquaintance stretches back about 40 years, so the main question to ask of “The Roots of the Blues,” their plain-spoken, enlightened new duo album, is why it took so long.

One possible answer is that both musicians have been busy enough in larger settings, notably Mr. Weston’s long-running African Rhythms. Another would be that saxophone-and-piano albums require an intrepid investment from record labels as well as musicians, despite a wealth of precedent in the format. (Sunnyside, which licensed this duo album from Universal France, also released a very good, very different one earlier this year, by the saxophonist Ben Wendel and the pianist Dan Tepfer.)

Anyway, it makes sense to regard “The Roots of the Blues” as an earned entitlement for two artists who have made earthy colloquy a mutual trademark. (At 87, Mr. Weston is well into the bloom of distinguished jazz elderhood; Mr. Harper, 70, is just entering it. They’ll appear at the Iridium on Nov. 26 and 27; theiridium.com.)

There’s just a bit of historical box checking on the album, with tracks that claim obvious connection to Duke Ellington (“Take the A Train”); Coleman Hawkins (“Body and Soul”) and Thelonious Monk (Mr. Weston’s “Carnival,” stamped with Monkish flair). All of which works well, as do a pair of solo pieces: “If One Could Only See,” the lone tune by Mr. Harper, played in prayerful rubato; and “Roots of the Nile,” a fount of pianistic mystery.

As that last title suggests, the album finds its deepest current in original songs that strive to evoke a place, either in myth or in memory. “Blues to Senegal” begins as an unstructured call and response between Mr. Weston’s rumbling lines and Mr. Harper’s focused cry, before settling into a purposeful stroll. “Congolese Children Song” features a melody made up of dissonant singsong, over a light, skipping rhythm. “The Healers” revolves around a somber but uplifting theme with undercurrents of the gospel church.

And “African Lady,” offered as a bonus track, is a new version of a ballad Mr. Weston introduced on his 1960 album “Uhuru Africa,” with lyrics by Langston Hughes. Mr. Harper takes it on squarely, projecting in a firm, even tone, until he and Mr. Weston let the melody trail off, as if punctuated with an ellipsis.

NATE CHINEN  

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