Six-foot-something piano giant Randy Weston travels with a small songbook. Concertgoers will nearly always hear at least one version of either "African Cookbook," "The Healers," "African Village Bedford-Stuyvesant" or "Hi-Fly." During Weston's opening set Sunday night at Blues Alley, the audience was treated to the first three tunes and, as has been true for approximately 30 years, the compositions didn't disappoint.
Weston's African Rhythms Trio includes longtime percussionist Neil Clarke and saxophonist-flutist Talib Kibwe. A lesser band's utter familiarity with these near-standard songs, as well as each other's musical moves, might make for a staid evening. But the African Rhythms Trio extracted constant energy from the familiar melodies. Plus, the musicians' complete internalization of the song structures freed them to toy with harmonic structures.
The tasty "African Cookbook" began as a virtual duet between Weston and Clarke as they played musical tag over an ever-shifting harmonic landscape. It was like a jazz version of the pool favorite Marco Polo, with each artist calling out musical phrases to know where the other was. Kibwe entered as the music slowed and delivered a quiet and assured solo that showed he knew exactly where his band mates were. Duke Ellington and ancient Africa inspired "The Healers," and it possesses all the meditative qualities the title implies. Weston's simple, soft, repetitive melody was the perfect bed for Kibwe to set down a beautiful flute solo, as Clarke accompanied on all sorts of rattles, tinkly bells and African drums. The vibrant romp "African Village Bedford-Stuyvesant" closed the evening and the standing ovation that came after it was well deserved.