JAZZ DIARY / The first music at last: Phil Johnson talks to Randy Weston and Ben Sidran

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The Independent Culture
For those who think that World Music was invented in a WOMAD festival field sometime in the 1980s, the career of the American pianist Randy Weston - who next Thursday begins a Contemporary Music Network tour with his African Rhythms Quintet and three Moroccan Gnaoua musicians - offers an instructive example.

Born in New York's Bedford Stuyvesant district in 1926, Weston made the connection between black American music and African culture very early. His Panamian father, an admirer of Marcus Garvey, forced his son to learn both the piano and the history and geography of Africa. 'He told me I had a glorious past', Weston says, 'from before our, shall I say exodus, to the New World. He programmed me from an early age; I had no choice.' By the late Sixties, when the black consciousness movement was encouraging African-Americans to rediscover their roots, Weston was already back in Africa, living in Tangier, where he started the Africa Rhythm Club and made contact with native musicians.

His explorations into fusing jazz with African music were not, he insists, anything new: 'It came from Ellington, who was very enthusiastic about Africa, and Dizzy Gillespie also did it by bringing in the Cuban rhythms of Chano Pozo.' Weston was, however, probably the first African-American musician to discover the rhythms of the Gnaoua (pronounced 'G'now'), a group of Moroccan Sufi Muslims who perform in the squares of Tangier and Marrakesh and whose music is credited with healing properties. Their exact origin is unclear but it seems that they come from sub-Saharan Africa, perhaps Mali, and may have been brought to north Africa as slaves. Playing percussion and the guenbri - a kind of lute - the Gnaoua are said to sound like the blues. Weston first heard them in Tangier in 1967: 'They had that true African sound; it was like hearing blues, jazz, bossa nova, samba and the black church all at the same time. I said to myself, 'This is where we came from'. I interviewed a young child in Morocco and asked 'Who are these people?' He said, 'You don't know? This is the first music.' '

Randy Weston's African Rhythms Quintet with Gnaoua Musicians of Morocco play Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 11 Feb (071-928 8800); St Donat's Arts Centre, Llantwit Major, 13 Feb (0446 794848); Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 14 Feb (0742 769922); Irish Centre, Leeds, 18 Feb (0532 455570); Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, 19 Feb (061-273 4504); Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham, 20 Feb (021-236 3889); Alhambra Studio, Bradford, 21 Feb (0274 752000). Randy Weston's latest album, 'The Spirits of our Ancestors', is available on Verve.

Knocking on the late Miles Davis's door was a daunting prospect for a journalist in the late 1980s. Never the most media- friendly of musicians, Davis had become renowned for giving interviewers a hard time. The pianist, writer and broadcaster Ben Sidran remembers feeling a little trepidation as he waited for his knock on the door of the Malibu beach-house to be answered, even though he had taken the precaution of arriving in the company of Tommy LiPuma, then Davis's record producer. 'This huge oak door opened,' Sidran says, 'and Miles came out looking like a polished icon. First he gave Tommy a big hug and then, inexplicably, he gave me a big hug too. He took us on a tour of the house and his living room was full of CDs, not jazz but Scritti Politti and a lot of dance stuff. Eventually Miles said: 'So you want to interview me?', and we got down to it. He was wonderful, very emotional and personable. When the interview finished, I stayed for another six hours or so while Miles cooked us a meal and talked.'

The text of the interview is well worth reading. It's one of 40 interviews with famous jazz musicians originally recorded by Sidran for his US National Public Radio programme and now collected in a book, Talking Jazz. Sidran's evident rapport with his subjects comes partly from his own long experience as a musician. As a student in Madison, Wisconsin in the mid- Sixties, Sidran joined Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs as a member of the rock band The Ardells. He turned down the chance to join the Steve Miller Band full-time in favour of studying at the University of Sussex, where he received a PhD for a dissertation on the sociology of black music in America. But he continued his musical career in England, making the acquaintance of the producer Glyn Johns and playing piano on sessions for the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton.

Now he runs his own record label, Go-Jazz, producing albums by artists such as Georgie Fame, Phil Upchurch and himself. 'They're gourmet items,' he says. 'Not pop albums but not straight-ahead bebop albums either. All the people we're working with have deep jazz roots but at the same time like the groove and the backbeat. Basically what I'm doing is taking some of my favourite artists and making the records that I hear in my head with them.' He's not put off by projects that at first glance seem hopelessly uncommercial; up-coming Go-Jazz albums include an Italian bebop singer and band, GeGe and the Boparazzi, and a jazz version of Hebrew liturgical music by 35 Jewish jazz musicians. Though Go-Jazz duties mean that Sidran has no time for further radio work, he hopes to release the Talking Jazz interviews as a series of CDs. The programmes were turned down by the BBC - but if they reconsider, Sidran is open to offers.

(Photograph omitted)

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