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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

African Rhythms: The Autobiography of Randy Weston

Randy Weston is surely an under-appreciated jazz pianist.  Most fans will know that Weston wrote the standard "Hi Fly" (about, it turns out, how tall he is) but not the real heart of his story.  It turns out to be not merely an interesting story but also a singular one.

In African Rhythms, Weston puts down his story in workmanlike but engaging prose (with the help of jazz writer Willard Jenkins), relating his connection to his father, who raised him in Brooklyn with great pride in being a man with roots in Africa, then his unusual jazz apprenticeship in the Berkshires where he started playing seriously in the mountain resorts, then his inevitable travel to and residency in Morocco.  My full review of the book on PopMatters is HERE.

Through all of this, Weston relates his story of being a musician primarily.  There is relatively little in African Rhythms about Weston's personal life.  Aside from his father, the most important 'secondary player' in the story if trombonist and arranger Melba Liston, to whom Weston would turn at the critical musical moments in this life.  For example, she arranged the music for Uhuru Afrika, which was the seminal work from 1961 that helped to propel Weston on his first trip to his real "home" and that he describes as his most important writing.  But even Liston comes off as a minor character compared to the music itself.

African Rhythms is a huge triumph in getting the reader to hunger to hear Weston's music.  It sent me back to his recordings with truly fresh ears.  And while the book itself was occasionally awkward or repetitious in its storytelling, the musical story it had to tell was riveting and unique.  Weston's has been a jazz life like no other.  For fans of the music, this is a fine and true jazz man's tale.

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