The arrival of any improvisational grand master in Los Angeles is a reason for hallelujahs, but the knowledge that you can hear both Yusef Lateef (with Adam Rudolph and Eternal Wind) and Randy Weston (solo piano) on one program is cause to ditch the class reunion and postpone the wedding. This Saturday‘s concert, part of a deep-digging series overseen by James Newton at Cal State L.A., gives you lots of reasons to bless your ears.
One is scarcity: Dr. Lateef has performed here only once in the Internet Age, and Weston’s sojourns in town are infrequent, though this writer ranks one of the pianist‘s nights at Catalina’s around a decade ago as a true clubgoing pinnacle. Another reason is the artists‘ age: Lateef is 80, Weston 75. But the main reason is who the hell these men are.
Lateef has participated in every phase of jazz evolution from ’40s bebop to the current edgewaters of electronic invention, and has grown through them all. So every note he plays, on sax, flute or whatever (his aptitudes are legion), contains nearly a century of musical history and personal experience, examined and re-examined at every restless turn. Listen, for instance, to last year‘s A Gift — Lateef releases many of his own CDs, likely to become Sun Ra–like collector’s items, on YAL Records — where his statements are sparse, thoughtful, essential: “Particles still functioning,” the cover legend reads, “. . . emitting that which is permitted.” This is not a man who wastes his breath.
Though Lateef‘s name stirs many memories — his famous 1961 oboe rendition of “Love Theme From Spartacus,” his introduction of Eastern motifs and world influences into jazz, his R&B-grounded Atlantic albums — his recent years have found him in a special fever of creativity. While mentoring new generations from his post as a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, he has cemented a long partnership with the L.A.-based percussionist Adam Rudolph that has enabled him to construct the brilliant long-forms The African-American Epic Suite and The World at Peace, and to form the working group Eternal Wind (which Live at the 20th Montreux Detroit Music Festival documents with a maximum of spirit and feel).
And then there’s Africa. Africa has always been on Lateef‘s mind, but his early-’80s research residency in Nigeria changed him in ways you can still hear, the way prolonged marination in the root juices has changed so many musicians. It was a giant step, and one to build on: This man learns more every day.
Randy Weston also has a little something to do with Africa, as you might guess from album titles such as African Cookbook, Uhuru Afrika and Marrakech in the Cool of the Evening. Beginning in 1961, in fact, the native Brooklynite escaped so often and so long to the continent that he became almost invisible in the USA, a condition that hasn‘t been completely reversed despite a string of Verve recordings from 1990 to 1998 that were excelled by nobody (nobody).
Weston’s musical paternity traces straight to Thelonious Monk, so he began with a taste for the harmonically indefinable, and his African experiences extended the indefinability to his rhythms. Intensive interaction with indigenous Moroccan healers such as the Master Musicians of Jajouka and the Gnawa brotherhood gave his fingers the kind of sway that can be acquired only by internalizing the heartbeats of an entire village as it drums, chants, blows and plucks for 24 hours of continuous ritual. He makes an impression that‘s as immediate as a double-clasped handshake, but a lot harder to explain.
Most of Weston’s recordings have been ensemble sessions, whether in smaller groups (among the best: Self Portraits, Saga, Khepera) or in bigger bangs arranged by the great L.A. trombonist Melba Liston (The Spirits of Our Ancestors, Volcano Blues). Still, he‘s extremely expressive all by himself, letting his joy and pain flow freely from second to second. One moment: the 1974 solo sessions for Blues to Africa, directly after his efforts to gather relief for a drought in North Africa had met with less success than he had hoped for. With African famines, wars and AIDS epidemics encountering similar indifference today (while the pop side of African music has seeped into the world mainstream), the poem that Weston recited along with his piano improvisation “Sahel” is hardly outdated.
“Hot sandscreepingsuffocatingrunninglike a stream of silent, dry poison,” Weston choked. “Africa! Where?The name has no meaningthere is no helpForgotten, misused and despisedPerish, Mother Africa.”
Not while artists like these are around.
Yusef Lateef With Adam Rudolph and Eternal Wind, plus Randy Weston on solo piano, perform at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex of Cal State L.A., Saturday, April 28, at 8 p.m.; admission $30 & $25. Call (323) 343-6600.