Those happening upon Thompson Memorial Chapel on Feb. 23 might have been surprised to see the stage set for a jazz quintet, a rare occurrence for the religious space. The expansive chapel served as a wonderful venue for the music of the famed Randy Weston Quintet. The quintet, featuring Weston on piano, Tali Kibwe on saxophone and flute, Benny Powell on trombone, Alex Blake on bass and Neil Clarke on percussion, delivered two fifty-minute sets to an enthusiastic crowd. The event was part of the series, Stalwart Originality: New Traditions in Black Performance, sponsored by the Black Student Union (BSU).
Weston has traveled widely as a performer throughout the last five decades, and many of his compositions were influenced by particular places. Lenox, Mass. was the inspiration for the opening number, “Berkshire Blues.” Weston’s facility at the piano was clear from the first few choruses of his playing. Weston composed all of the pieces played at the concert.
Second on the program was the tune “Little Niles,” which was dedicated to orator and author W. E. B. DuBois. Commenting on the song, Weston said, “Most of my compositions come from things I hear every day.” “Little Niles,” like most of the songs, began with a rubato intro, followed by a nice transition into a medium jazz-waltz.
The makeup of the ensemble shifted throughout the evening. “Three Pyramids and a Sphinx,” which opened the second set, featured only the piano and bass in a duet. Blake’s bass playing was technically amazing; his agility on the fingerboard was complemented by a range of extended techniques and his playing was always musically appropriate. Later in the program, Weston played “Night in Mubari,” a piano solo he composed. Under Weston’s agile fingers the college’s Bosendorfer really sang, and as beautiful as his playing was while playing with the band, “Night in Mubari” outshined all of his other playing. It was, I thought, the highlight of the evening.
Another high point in the evening came during the second set when Weston introduced the dancer Andrea Woods, with whom he has worked in the past. She danced with the quintet for one song which provided an interesting, unusual and enjoyable accompaniment to the playing of the band.
Throughout the evening, the band showed great technical facility. Neil Clarke did not play a drum kit as is usually seen in a jazz quintet, but rather played a number of African hand percussion instruments ranging from congas to shakers, cymbals and wind chimes. His playing complemented the feel of the band whether the tune called for a swing or a mambo feel. The band gave him room to solo extensively and show off his speed on the congas on “Niger Mambo,” which concluded the first set. Trombonist Benny Powell possessed a large, dark tone that filled the hall wonderfully. His solos were unextravagant but very musical. Kibwe’s saxophone had a much edgier tone than Powell’s, and he seemed over-eager to use the altissimo register of his instrument. He sounded much better when he picked up the flute during the second set.
Overall, the band was energetic. Kibwe’s solo on “High Fly” featured playful allusions to Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Surrey with a Fringe on Top” and “St. Thomas.” Their energy was infectious and the audience received the quintet’s music with enthusiasm, giving an extended standing ovation at the end of the performance. Thompson Chapel proved itself to be an excellent space for jazz, and I hope that in the future I will be able to hear more evenings of jazz played there.