RANDY WESTON'S AFRICAN RHYTHMS TRIO performing as part of JAZZ BY GENRE SUMMERFEST with CANEFIRE, JASON WILSON & TABARRUK, CHRIS BOTTOMLEY'S BRAINFUDGE, WALEED KUSH, KALABASH, KAREN RICHARDSON, TASA, SUNDAR VISWANATHAN & THE AVATAR COLLECTIVE and DJ GOLDFINGER at the Docks (11 Polson), Saturday (August 11), 1 pm. $35-$45. 416-870-8000, www.jazzbygenre.com. Rating: NNNNN
While many career musicians lucky enough to make it to their 80th birthday are content to reflect on past accomplishments and receive lifetime achievement honours, indefatigable piano marvel Randy Weston was too busy playing the music of his Zep Tepi (Random Chance) disc for huge crowds across Africa and Europe to look back and admire his work.
When I catch him during a brief stopover at his Bed-Stuy home, he's only had a few hours of shut-eye since returning from a festival tour of France and Italy, yet sounds excited about topping Saturday's bill at the four-day Jazz By Genre Summerfest.
With hundreds of pages of his eventful life story already committed to a forthcoming autobiography, and a new recording pencilled in for his first clear weekend, Weston hasn't given any thought to the "R" word. The mere suggestion inspires china-rattling laughter from the towering piano titan whose fingertips brush my elbows whenever we shake hands.
"You mean... retirement?" cackles Weston, as though it's the most ridiculous thing he's ever heard. "Oh, no, heh heh, heavens no. There's no such thing! When I encounter a new hiphop song today, I hear Africa in the rhythms. You can't get away from the Motherland; I'm convinced Africa is the spiritual centre of our planet. There's still so much we need to need to learn about it that I could spend 20 lifetimes studying and absorbing without ever thinking about retiring.
"Once you can listen to the birds singing and realize that nature was the first orchestra, you begin to understand how the music is in tune with our planet and the universe. The more connections you discover, the more you want to keep learning."
Music has healing power, he insists.
"When I go onstage with Alex Blake and Neil Clarke and look out at the audience, I see all the different colours and people of all ages, yet if the music is right, we all become one. To witness that every night is still very exciting."
Though well schooled in the vocabulary of jazz music and its twisted history, Weston is primarily a storyteller who employs phrases associated with jazz to carry his colourful true-life narratives. He makes new discoveries every day and can't wait to share his latest revelations. As usual, he's got some surprises in store.
"I think my next recording may involve banjo and tuba. I was recently involved in a production paying tribute to the great bandleader and composer James Reese Europe, concerning the period between 1911 and 1918. It showed the rich heritage and how those cats could swing at a time before the term 'jazz' was used," he says.
"Many don't realize that back in 1912, James Reese Europe put on a concert at Carnegie Hall involving 150 African American and African Puerto Rican musicians and 10 pianos.
"We think what we're doing today is so revolutionary and new, but when you look into the history of this music, you discover the truly incredible things done by our ancestors in the early 20th century. It's mind-blowing."
In our drive to move forward, Weston claims, we neglect the lessons of the past.
"There's a whole hidden history of music waiting to be uncovered, and the more you investigate what went on before, the more you realize how much you don't know. It's endlessly fascinating for me."
Additional Interview Audio Clips
Self-deprecating piano great Randy Weston sees his recent Zep Tepi recording as merely the lastest leaf on a giant tree that standsin the old growth forest of African American music.
According to Weston, jazz music is in good shape, it's just the methods of getting it to the people who need it that demands a rethink