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Ray Copeland, Idrees Sulieman, trumpet; Melba Liston, trombone; Johnny Griffin, tenor sax; Randy Weston, piano; George Joyner, bass; Charlie Persip, drums. Recorded RCA Studios, NYC, October, 1958, recording engineer Ray Hall. Hall was jobbing house engineer for RCA Victor, whose recording credits include Sonny Rollins RCA sessions The Bridge, What’s New? and Now’s The Time!
Randolph “Randy” Weston’s piano was inspired by Art Tatum, Duke Ellington and primarily, Monk, who in his formative years, Weston would chauffer around Brooklyn. Weston came to prominence early in the late 40’s and early ’50s, being voted New Star Pianist in Down Beat magazine’s International Critics’ Poll of 1955. Musical peers included other early jazz figures Kenny Dorham and Cecil Payne. Arguably his best recording in that period was the featured album Little Niles recorded for United Artists in 1958, in long term collaboration with trombonist/ arranger “Peach Melba” Liston (hat-tip Auguste Escoffier)
In the 60’s Weston became immersed in African heritage, travelling Africa with a US cultural mission before deciding in 1967 to settle in Tangiers, Morrocco, where he spent five years running the African Rhythms Club Fortuitously this move insulated him from the changing fashions in jazz at the time back home. However at the end of that Tangiers sojourn, in 1972, he was enticed by Creed Taylor to record his biggest hit record, Blue Moses, featuring Weston uncomfortably on electric piano – as CTI positioned itself in the funky wave of jazz in the early 70s. Joining him on CTI was a 60’s/70’s now electric fusion roster of Billy Cobham, Ron Carter, Freddie Hubbard, and … Grover Washington Jr. I know, some people like it.
Over the following four decades, recordings were sporadic, some recorded in France, and released on a variety of lesser labels, but appearances at concerts around the world followed on the strength of his African heritage associations, including the London memorial concert for Ghanian drummer Guy Warren, and a duo session with another LJC fave, tenor saxophonist Billy Harper at London’s Southbank. Many symbolic celebrations and commemorative events followed, including a session in Canterbury Cathedral, the inauguration of a library in Egypt, at the 50th Montreux Festival Switzerland, and a shrine inJapan. Weston was in demand as a senior and honoured figure in the Jazz Hall of Fame – fame that had largely eluded him in the actual golden years of jazz.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, he defied the depredations of age, and died only recently at his home in Brooklyn, September 1, 2018, at the age of 92. Brooklyn paid tribute to his lfe and music with a street-co-named Randy Weston Way.
Weston’s trademark feisty compositions, with strong arrangements courtesy of trombonist Melba Liston, one of the few women instrumentalists in jazz at the end of the 50s. In his original 1959 liner notes to Little Niles, Langston Hughes pinpoints the arresting quality of Weston’s approach:
(The songs) all in three-quarter time, these charming little vignettes escape rigidity of beat by a fluid flow of counter-rhythms and melodies, one against another, that brings continuous delight.
A Mosaic reviewer adds insight:” (Weston) drew upon the rhythmic drive of the Harlem masters, the rich chords and wide voicings of Ellington and the spare, jabbing right hand of Count Basie”.
Whilst Weston claims inspiration from African music, what I hear in Randy Weston is boldly lyrical and melodically imaginative New York jazz. The sextet line-up offers rich textures, especially underpinned by Liston’s sonorous trombone, conjuring up Brookmeyer/Mingusesque urban sensibility. Throw in Johnny Griffin’s high energy tenor, Ray Copeland/ Idrees Sulieman’s cooking trumpet, you have a potent force pushing Weston’s compositions along.
Had Weston been signed to a specialist jazz label like Blue Note or Prestigee, perhaps things would have turned out differently, but he went largely unrecognised in the small United Artists jazz catalogue, then swapping labels and continents kept him out of the commercial limelight he deserved. However his longevity ensured him a place in the public celebration of jazz and his music for many decades..
Vinyl: LBJ 60058 Japan EMI Toshiba 1985 reissue of United Artists UAL 4011
That large area of vinyl land with the long trail-off groove tells you the quantity of music is a little on the skinny side.Strangely, all three japanese reissues are mono.
Bonus Selection: Nice Ice
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The reissue history of this recording followed the now familiar trail of Blue Note under United Artists management – off to Japan, with an edition from King Records Tokyo in 1976:
Though the recording was originally issued by UA in 1959 in both mono and stereo format, interesting that King opted for only the mono format, as did Toshiba-EMI in my 1985 edition. Where a two-track tape existed, it was common practice for the Japanese to release in stereo, even when that two-track recording was intended for fold-down mono use. Another edition also appeared in Japan , date unknown, under the United Artists label, also only mono.
All of the music from Little Niles along with Weston’s other two UA releases can be found on the Blue Note Re-Issue Series LP under the same name, released, in Stereo, in 1976. The relatively short Little Niles tracks are padded out to a full double album with some live recordings at The Five Spot, which are not of the best sound quality.
The artwork is the usual drab beige two-fer series, and the pressing is from I guess UA’s own tapes, not the high-quality of Van Gelder work found on most of the rest of the two-fer Blue Note vault findings from Michael Cuscuna. Having said that, the Japanese transfer for this EMI-Toshiba japan reissue is a little muddy, so this is one of those recordings where you focus on the music quality, writing playing and arranging.
Mosaic probably have the definitive Randy Weston compilation in their Mosaic Select series, on three Evil Silver Discs.
Mosaic have presented the Little Niles tracks in stereo, mastered in 24-bit from the original master tapes – but issued only on CD, reversing the gain of using the original master tapes, so not for me. Michael Cuscuna has a unique historical understanding of the jazz heritage, but unfortunately doesn’t get this “vinyl thing” Which is why some folk are paying upwards of $1,000 for some of those out-of-print Mosaic vinyl box-sets.