It’s hard to frame the loss of a 92 year old man who was productive and healthy virtually to the end as tragic, but we will greatly miss the great pianist, composer, and visionary Randy Weston all the same. He was a major figure in jazz and a huge influence on my own conception both sonically and conceptually. His powerful and ruggedly individualistic piano style was an underpinning force throughout his music, his partnerships with distinctive arrangers modeled effective collaboration, and his exploration of the cultural and musical roots of Africa were ahead of their time and unprecedentedly deep for someone whose jazz bona fides were also so unimpeachable. And if you ask me, he never lost any speed off his fastball, as his output in his 80s was as potent as that of his 20s. Safe passage Maestro Weston, and for everyone else, here are 10 of my favorites tracks of his, listed chronologically.
1 ) “I Get a Kick out of You” from Cole Porter – In a Modern Mood, recorded 1954
This duo session with bassist Sam Gill represents Randy’s first studio trip as a bandleader. We can already hear his pianistic touch and harmonic sense in full bloom on this edgy yet upbeat arrangement.
2 ) “Little Niles” from Little Niles, recorded 1958
This is historically significant for a couple reasons, as it is an early (though not the first) recording of this classic Weston composition dedicated to his son, and it also represents the first recorded collaboration with trombonist and arranger Melba Liston, whose arranging work can be heard here and would prove to be central to Randy’s work in the 1990s (not to mention from here off and on through the early 70s). This edgy, gorgeous performance features solo work by Randy, trumpeter Ray Copland and tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin.
3 ) “Hi-Fly” from The Warm Sound by Johnny Coles, recorded 1961
This is another early-though-not-original version of a Weston classic, in this case his most-played tune. The quartet (also including George Tucker and Charli Persip) grooves elegantly and Randy himself swings as hard as I’ve ever heard him do.
4 ) “Niger Mambo” from African Cookbook, recorded 1963
This Latin-meets-African rave-up once again features Copland’s trumpet soloing and Liston’s arranging amidst a sea of driving percussion and propulsive piano work.
5 ) “Marrakesh Blues” from asdf, recorded 1972
Don Sebesky’s lush arrangements dominate this session in which Randy (heard on electric piano) is the unlikely but ultimately compatible beneficiary of the CTI treatment. Freddie Hubbard, Grover Washington Jr., and Ron Carter are also prominently featured here.
6 ) “Zulu” from Duet in Detroit by Roy Brooks, recorded 1984
Who needs a bassist? If Randy’s powerful left hand is getting in the zone, then nobody does (sorry, bass playing friends). A classic Weston composition here gets a furiously grooving treatment in a duet with the great, underappreciated Detroit drummer Roy Brooks.
7 ) “African Village Bedford-Stuyvesant 1” from Spirits of Our Ancestors, recorded 1991
My first exposure to Randy’s music came after reading about this then-new album in Downbeat in my high school library and thinking “I bet I’d like this.” It sounded pretty dissimilar to what I (for whatever reason) expected but captivated me all the same. While Melba Liston’s arrangements are beautiful and central to the whole record, the opening solo piano track is the one that sucked me in when I first spun this record.
8 ) “In Memory Of” from Volcano Blues, recorded 1993
My then-teacher Ted Dunbar was on much of this record (including this track) while I was in college, so it’s no wonder I got into it, I suppose. I particularly dig Liston’s arrangement on this brass-and-percussion heavy track, with Wallace Roney and Benny Powell featured atop the fury of the drum/percussion section of Charli Persip, Neil Clarke, and Obo Addy.
9 ) “Blue Moses” from Zep Tepi, recorded 2005
When Randy’s African Rhythm’s Trio came to Wesleyan in 2007, this beautiful album was their most recent album at the time. This classic Weston composition is reinvented as a feature for these three telepathic colleagues, with a solid, interactive groove throughout by percussionist Neil Clarke and ample space to feature virtuoso bassist Alex Blake.
10 ) “Cleanhead Blues” from The Roots of the Blues (with Billy Harper), recorded 2013
This driving, gnarly blues is semi-arbitrarily my favorite track from a duo album with tenor saxophone giant and longtime collaborator Harper alongside Weston, at this point still a spring chicken at 86.