Recent Listening: Randy Weston, McNeil/McHenry Quartet


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Randy Weston, The Storyteller (Motéma). This is the latest chapter in the 84-year-old pianist's long-running love story about Africa. Weston's African Rhythms Sextet includes the greattrombonist Benny Powell in one of his last recordings, alto saxophonist T.K. Blue, bassist Alex Blake, drummer Lewis Nash and conga specialist Neil Clarke. He made the album almost exactly a year ago in performance at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola in New York. With the rhythm section generating heat near combustion levels, some of the ensemble passages approximate the excitement of the Dizzy Gillespie big band of the late forties that blended Afro-Cuban rhythms into jazz. Solos by all hands express the passion—sometimes smoldering, sometimes volcanic— that has typified Weston's music for six decades. The entire CD is a highlight, but Weston devotees will find particular stimulation and a good deal of humor in the reworking of his classic “Hi Fly" and its recapitulation, “Fly Hi." Nash and Clarke achieve moments of jaw-dropping percussion virtuosity. Weston's piano playing continues to embody the spirits of Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington.

John McNeil/Bill McHenry, Chill Morn He Climb Jenny (Sunnyside). McNeil tempers his trumpet virtuosity with shots of wry. In tenor saxophonist McHenry he has found his ideal counterpart and foil. In this successor to their superb 2008 CD Rediscovery, the pianoless quartet reprises and, to put it mildly, reinterprets additional pieces from the repertoires of the Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker quartets of the 1950s. There are hints at the timbres and moods of those groups, but this is no ghost band. Free but tethered to tradition, it is in the spirit of 21st century downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn jazz. Most often, bassist Joe Martin and drummer Jochen Rueckert lay down measured swing that leaves McNeil and McHenry at their leisure to roam freely within—and occasionally outside of—the bounds of “Carioca," “Moonlight in Vermont," “Aren't You Glad You're You" and from the pen of Russ Freeman, “Batter Up," the tricky blues “Bea's Flat" and “Maid in Mexico." Throughout, the horns contrive little duet riffs that they manage to make sound as if they had just thought of them. Three of the tunes depart from the west coast play list. Thad Jones' “Three And One" and Wilbur Harden's loping “I Got Rhythm" artifact “Wells Fargo" inspire some of the quartet's most passionate work of the date, which was before an audience at the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village. Miles Davis' “Pfrancing," is primarily a blues background for McNeil's parting announcement. That enigmatic album title? It's an anagram of the leaders' names.

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This story appears courtesy of Rifftides by Doug Ramsey.
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