The Spirits of Our Ancestors
A Jazz Landmark Inspired by Mother Africa
There was lots of talk about ancestors and forefathers floating around the jazz world in the early 1990s. Wynton Marsalis, media darling, was everywhere, preaching a respect-the-tradition approach that won many followers among young jazz musicians. Some veterans responded as well—Keith Jarrett's Standards trio showed how old tunes, the Marsalisapproved "classic" repertoire of jazz, could be reworked into newly vital platforms.
Randy Weston, the often-overlooked pianist and composer who was born in Brooklyn in 1926, entered this discussion from a different direction: Forget about honoring the well-documented exploits of Louis Armstrong and the other jazz greats, he suggested, and concentrate on Mother Africa, the headwater from which so much music has flowed. This two-CD suite, recorded over three days in 1991, stands as one of the most imaginative explorations of "world jazz" ever recorded, a series of picturesque "scenes" conjuring village life from the perspective of urbane jazzers.
A series of originals inspired by folk tunes, Spirits begins with Weston's solo piano fantasy, "African Village Bedford-Stuyvesant 1," which links stride-style rhythms to angular modern chordal splashes. That's a clue about what's to come: music that, in celebrating Africa, gleefully scrambles the jazz time line. A medium-sized ensemble arrives for "The Healers," playing a rustic melody that arranger Melba Liston, a frequent Weston collaborator, scored to make several horns sound like a parade band. The soloists all rise to the challenges of these ambling pieces: Eager to expand upon Weston's earthy, contrivance-free motifs, they move as though guided by wise ancestral spirits.
Released: 1992, Antilles
Key Tracks: "African Village Bedford-Stuyvesant 1," "African Cookbook," "The Call," "African Sunrise," "A Prayer for Us All."
Catalog Choice: Tanjah; The Splendid Master Gnawa Musicians of Morocco
Next Stop: Abdullah Ibrahim: Soweto
After That: Dudu Pukwana: In the Townships
Book Pages: 854–855