Still developing his unique fusion of mainstream jazz and African and Caribbean tunes and rhythms, Randy Weston checked into the Jazz Bakery Tuesday with an unusual twist on the traditional piano trio. With two longtime colleagues at hand — Alex Blake (bass) and Neil Clark (African percussion) — Weston’s African Rhythms Trio produced some absorbing musical incantations, one of which lasted longer than a half-hour.
Weston, who turned 77 on Sunday, has been fairly quiet on records since his decadelong string of often-brilliant, often-African-themed albums for Antilles and Verve ended with 1998’s “Khepara.” (His latest, “Ancient Future” on Mutable Music, is a coupling of a new solo session with a solo album from 1983.) But that says more about the fading state of the major-label jazz recording business than it does about Weston, who remains a commanding, quirky, unpredictable creative force, stabbing away on the house Yamaha piano in his Monk-rooted, highly individual manner.
Blake and Clark, too, display their unique personalities. Hardly your average self-effacing anchor on bass, the carbon-steel-fingered Blake strummed and slapped his instrument like an inspired madman, summoning techniques associated with flamenco guitarists and scatting along a la Slam Stewart. Clark eschewed the usual drum kit and didn’t need it, generating all the drive Weston and Blake could want with a set of congas, bongos, hand-played cymbals, claves and a diverse collection of shakers. And Clark’s setup sounded clearer and sharper in this room than an ordinary trap set often does.
All of this was on display in the lengthy opening medley that commenced with an antic jazz waltz/blues “Blues Africa” and careened into a deliberately discordant, conga-driven “Caravan.” Later, Weston used “The Healers,” a dignified composition from his double-CD magnum opus “The Spirits of Our Ancestors,” as a solemn homage to African drumming pioneer Babatunde Olatunji, who died on Weston’s birthday, releasing the tension with a sprightly Afro-Cuban-accented follow-up.