REVIEW: Randy Weston/Billy Harper and JD Allen, Queen Elizabeth Hall (2014 EFG LJF)

Randy Weston and Billy Harper. 2014 EFG London Jazz Festival
Photo Credit: Roger Thomas

Randy Weston/Billy Harper and JD Allen
(Queen Elizabeth Hall. 17th November 2014, EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by Andy Boeckstaens)

Having left the South Bank thoroughly dispirited and disappointed on Saturday night, by the dullness and the sheer soullessness of Abdullah Ibrahim's septet, the much-needed antidote came when I returned on Monday. The sound of JD Allen’s tenor sax was heard before he emerged from the shadows, and – brimming with enthusiasm – the Detroit-born 41-year-old poured out captivating, uncompromising, gimmick-less jazz for the next 50 minutes. With one exception - the standard Stardust – Allen avoided the temptation to play songs from his latest album “Bloom” (Savant SCD 2139) and plumped instead for older compositions including The Pilot’s Compass, Son House, Pagan and Conjuration of Angles.

Allen’s classy line-up – featuring Alexander Claffy on bass and Jonathan Barber on drums - sometimes brought to mind the piano-less trios of Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson, and the band completely lacked the bullish arrogance that taints so many of its contemporaries. It was great stuff, and a very hard act to follow.



JD Allen Trio, 2014 EFG London Jazz Festival - Photo Credit: Roger Thomas

The relationship between pianist Randy Weston and saxophonist Billy Harper dates back to the early 70s, when Harper travelled to Tangier to participate in a festival that Weston had organised. They recorded their first duet CD “The Roots of the Blues” (Sunnyside SSC 3097) early last year but, like their predecessors on stage at the QEH, most of the pieces at the gig came from other sources.

With 88 years of life behind him and 88 keys in front, Weston began with the spiritual vamp of The Healers, and it paved the way for a remarkable set that overflowed with joyful sounds and luminous harmonies. Early on, Weston’s huge hands evoked the plodding of an African elephant, yet later on Little Niles his fingers were lightning-fast. After tapping out the rhythm on the piano’s woodwork, he incorporated elements of “stride” into his classic Hi Fly, and swung the roof off with an unaccompanied A Night in Mbari. Weston provided a brief background to each of the selections and proved to be an avuncular, likeable front-man.

Harper was the perfect foil. Speaking only through his tenor sax, the 71-year-old displayed a gorgeous tone that was somehow both deep and bright, and he let rip with wonderful flurries and wails on Blues to Africa. If One Could Only See came to Harper in a dream and was a solo tour de force, but it’s the partnership between the two men that was truly magical. During Blue Moses and Kofi Ghanaba’s Love, The Mystery Of, Weston and Harper knew exactly when to complement the other and when to strike out with something individual. After all those years, their love of playing together remains undimmed.

This was a fantastic double bill, and it’s a crime that the hall was less than half full.

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