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Randy Weston & Billy Harper: Raising Spirits, Telling Stories

Flowing through personal and cultural history

Billy Harper
Randy Weston (l.) and Billy Harper

Telling stories is pianist Randy Weston and tenor saxophonist Billy Harper’s main objective on their joyous new duet disc, The Roots of the Blues (Sunnyside). The two veterans tackle 14 cherry-picked compositions, mostly from Weston’s oeuvre, that accentuate the legendary pianist’s long-established mission to invoke the spirits of the expansive African Diaspora. “I’m always trying to tell stories about African people-of our culture and our genius-whether we’re in the motherland, in the Caribbean or in the United States,” Weston, 87, explains. “We have so many stories to tell. I learned that from Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. They [acknowledged] that we’re not just playing music, we’re keeping the foundation and history of our people and we’re telling stories about what’s happening with our people at that particular time.”

In addition to revisiting such Weston classics as “Berkshire Blues,” “Carnival” and “Blues to Africa,” the duo delivers poignant readings of the standards “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Body and Soul” and “How High the Moon.” As with some of Weston’s compositions, those too aim at expressing specific aspects of African-American life. Regarding “Body and Soul,” Weston wanted to pay tribute to one of his earliest musical idols, Coleman Hawkins, with whom he got to record in 1959. The standard becomes an ideal vehicle to showcase both Weston’s thick, orchestral approach to the piano and Harper’s hefty tone and rhapsodic approach to melody. Their urbane reading of “Take the ‘A’ Train” evokes the giddy excitement Weston had when the namesake train became a fixture in New York City’s landscape. “Before [the A train], to get to Harlem from Brooklyn you had to change trains. So when the A train arrived, we could go directly from Brooklyn to Harlem and go the Apollo Theater,” Weston recalls.

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