A Personal Tribute to Jazz Master Randy Weston

Way back in the early 1970s I stumbled upon a then-new record titled "Blue Moses" by pianist Randy Weston. It had a very colorful, almost psychedelic cover and a roster of top jazz stars like Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Hubert Laws on flute, drummer Billy Cobham, Miles Davis's bassist Ron Carter. and more, and looked exotic. I took a chance and bought it for $3 (my hourly wage then) at the local shop, rode my bike home, put it on, and thus began a lifelong love of the music therein. It remains one of my top ten jazz albums — and I’ve got hundreds.

Weston himself didn’t like it much at the time, though. Already long established as a performer and composer of Africa-infused jazz, he reluctantly played the electric keyboard on this record for the first and last time. He wouldn’t even call the then-popular Fender Rhodes electric keyboard a real piano. He and his percussionist son flew to New York from their home in Tangiers, Morocco to record, flew back home, and when the resulting record got to them months later they weren’t even sure it was their music.

But jazz fans knew, and loved it, and "Blue Moses" became what Weston came to call “my only hit record,” which got him out of debt. With time he came to appreciate what the folks at CTI Records, known for lush, complex productions, had done with his original concepts. As he said in an interview not long before he died at 91, “it was the story of my life in Morocco. That’s a very, very personal experience—also for my son, because we lived there. We lived with the people. We traveled. We hung out with the traditional people. Cats playing music on camels, on horseback, all kind of drums, dance music, it’s wonderful. And I just say wow. You know, we’d get together, we would read the Koran together, my son and I. We would play chess together. He listened to the Gnawan musicians and started playing rhythms that I didn’t know he knew. That’s what ‘Blue Moses’ is all about."

Weston, who was a towering figure at 6'8", must have stood out in Morocco, but he made it his mission to learn all he could of North African music and to blend it with his own. "I was in this small French car with my son, (drummer) Ed Blackwell, and the bass player Bill Wood, and we drove from Tangier all the way to the Sahara. I’m driving. The car’s so small that the wheel is between my legs, but I just loved adventure, I guess, at that time. So we go to this village up in the Rif Mountains, and we see snow. So I said, Wow, I didn’t know there was snow in Morocco. I saw the people skiing, so I said, I got to put music to that.”

"Blue Moses" is full of impressions of these travels, with shifting rhythms and melodies and superb ensemble and solo playing. All four extended songs are wonderful, once one gets past the dated synthesizer in the opening "Ifrane" (which is about those skiers). But the song that has lived in my ears and brain for decades is titled “Night in Medina.” In the album's sparse liner notes, Weston noted about this composition, the song "expresses my feelings of peace, but peace tinged with apprehension, during a 3 a.m. walk in the twisting streets of the Medina (old city) in Rabat, when the moon was full."

When my friend Eric and I rode our bikes from Paris down through central France and the Spanish Mediterranean coast, stashing our wheels near the ferry to Tangier and then riding buses and trains further into Morocco, this song's haunting melody was my internal soundtrack. Walking through the sprawling maze of the marketplaces or Medina’s of Fez or Marrakech, the slow five-note descending melody hummed in my psyche. The exotic percussion and faint singing vocals, as if from one of the high towers calling worshipers to prayer, fit right in with what we were seeing, hearing, smelling and feeling. It's one of my most enduring travel memories, and as the old song goes, I've been everywhere, man.

Randy Weston died last year, after a long and renowned musical career. He recorded great many albums before and after "Blue Moses," and was something of a cult hero to many jazz fans. I only saw him play live once and am forever grateful for that experience. And it seems Weston, despite many early struggles, lived with gratitude too. Looking back towards the end of his life, he reflected “I’m so fortunate now because wherever we go now, the musicians with whom I work, I feel that we give the spirit of Africa in our music. I describe it as spirit—living with the people, loving the people, reading about the people, eating the foods and drink. What I’m doing now is because of years of love. Love of my parents. Love of my people. Love of life. Love of humanity. And love of this beautiful planet.”

Obviously Randy Weston was not only a great musician and composer, but a great soul. "Blue Moses," long hard to find, has been re-released on CD, and “Night in Medina” and other songs from it, and more from Weston’s long and storied career, can be found online. Take a musical visit to Morocco, guided by a master.

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