Deep downtown in Manhattan, near a still-gaping wound crowned by a sad excess of open sky, is a magnificent glass enclosure attached to a complex whose name speaks not of Apollo, but of Mammon. This is the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center, and ironically, it actually echoes rather frequently with the sounds of art and beauty. It was here on Tuesday night that I caught pianist Randy Weston's African Rhythms Quintet and the Gnawa Master Musicians of Morocco, performing one of the Winter Garden's many attractive free-of-charge concerts.
The pianist opened with two solo numbers; I arrived in time for the second, which opened with a Monkish vamp that served to remind us that Weston was paying homage to Thelonious long before the Pulitzer Prize committee caught up. Riffs and chords were stacked into a massive spire of sound -- rendered steely and glassy by this massive steel-and-glass enclosure -- which resolved into a joyous explosion of stride rhythms.
Weston brought to the stage Abdullah el-Gourd, the Moroccan musician who'd first introduced him to Gnawa music more than three decades ago, during the pianist's sojourn in Tangier. Weston explained that when he'd first heard el-Gourd play his hag'houge, a rough-hewn baritone lute also known as the guinbre (or simply genbri), he'd been reminded of the great Ellington band bassist Jimmy Blanton. But when el-Gourd -- resplendent in a white gown with cowrie-shell decorations and a red cap fringed with dreadlocks -- began to play, the sheer physicality of his strumming fingers and thumping thumb was just as reminiscent of the slapping style employed by funk bass guitarists.
The remainder of the Gnawa contingent -- Abdenebi and Mostafa Oubella from Tangier on karkabou (Morocco's signature metal castanets) and vocals, as well as two players from Marrakech, Ahmed Saassaa on hag'houge and M'Barek Ben Othman adding vocals and percussion -- took the stage for "Chalabati," a traditional Moroccan song included on Weston's 1992 Verve album, The Splendid Master Gnawa Musicians of Morocco. The musicians kicked off a loping, triple-time rhythm accented on the second beat of every other measure, its melody begun on an off-beat.
One by one, Weston's band came to the stage and joined in: bassist Alex Blake, whose florid strumming often seemed closer in spirit to flamenco guitar than to the more modest patterns of the two hag'houge players; percussionist Neil Clarke, who played percolating rhythms on conga drums while marking a steady pulse with a tamborine presumably controlled by a foot pedal; reed player T.K. Blue, whose offered dancing elaborations on the Gnawans' sung melodies with his soprano saxophone; and trombonist Benny Powell, whose own solo was issued in a rich, copper tone. One of Oubellas lept to his feet, dancing and whirling across the stage. In the aisle to my right, a tiny, beaming blond toddler in a pink sweater and stonewashed jeans responded in kind, restrained only by the protective grasp of her mother.
While the Moroccans took a breather, Weston kicked off "The Shrine" with rumbling notes in his left hand and cascading flurries in his right. The sinuous, floating melody led to a breezy flute solo from Blue and a yawning drawl from Powell, as well as an extended passage for Blake that was more reminiscent of the hag'houge style than anything else he played tonight. The quintet followed with "Blue Moses," one of Weston's best-known tunes; halfway through, the Gnawa musicians appropriated the theme and recast it in their own style. The Oubellas came forward and danced what amounted to a drum duet in clomping leather shoes. Blue led the entire troupe parading out into the audience, in a joyously ragged celebration of music as manifestation of spirit, as celebration and social function.
The following selection, "Lalla Mira," continued along the same lines, a hypnotic, cyclical melody in which Weston's pealing piano figures amounted to one more drum in the troupe. Once again, the band spilled off the stage into the audience, as Blue etched boppish alto saxophone lines across the boiling din. Audience members joined in the party, African-dance experts getting down alongside urbanites whose moves were clearly borrowed from Belinda Carlisle circa 1981. The band gleefully paraded around the audience -- a show of high spirits as well as a fascinating aural experience, from where I sat. The ebullient Ben Othman threatened to steal the show outright, so reluctant was he to let the music fade. Eventually, the Moroccans retired from the stage; having briefly transformed the Winter Garden into a steamy hothouse, Weston and his band cooled the room with their closing rendition of "Mystery of Love."
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