“When I first heard gnawa music, I heard the blues, and jazz, and the Black church,” Randy Weston explained to the sold-out crowd at the New School Tuesday night. The ageless piano sage has made a career of taking jazz back to its ancient African roots and then reinventing them, first inspired by his father and later while living in Morocco, where he immersed himself in innumerable North African folk and classical music styles. Currently artist-in-residence at the university, he brought along his pal Abdellah El Gourd along with a trio of energetic, impressively athletic dancer-percussionists from his group Dar Gnawa of Tanger for an insightful, sometimes trance-inducing, sometimes raptly transcendent performance of both traditional material and some of Weston’s best-loved compositions.
The percussionists supplied a hypnotically polyrhythmic clickety-clack backdrop with their pairs of cast-metal qraqab castanets while El Gourd grounded the music in low, circling, propulsive phrases on his three-string gimbri lute – one of the earliest ancestors of the funk bass. While Weston didn’t mention that particular lineage, he took care to explain that the qraqabs are a descendant of something considerably more disturbing: handcuffs. Centuries ago, in the Berber lands, prisoners in chains would use them to communicate in code.
Since gnawa music continues to serve several roles in the community – as rhythmic backdrop for mass celebration, spiritual ritual and physical healing, among other things – it’s no surprise that the vocals, delivered robustly by El Gourd an the rest of the group, have a mantra-like quality. In conversation with El Gourd along with a younger countryman and New School student, Weston revealed that the music also has a synesthetic connection – different individuals, different songs and even riffs are associated with different colors. Weston took some obvious relish in being someone whose color, predictably, turned out to be blue.
And the blues, along with their ancient, more lingering and slowly unwinding roots, were everywhere in Weston’s solo pieces, which he played in between numbers by the Moroccans. Night in Medina, he told the crowd, was inspired by a trip to the bustling Tangiers marketplace he frequented during the day but hesitated to visit after dark: “You know, being from Bed-Stuy!” he joked. Awash in hushed, low-register, moonlit resonance, saturnine modes and allusive Middle Eastern phases, Weston slowly pulled good-natured postbop out of it. Likewise, he closed the performance with a regal, judiciously crescendoing take of Blue Moses, joined slowly and then joyously by the rest of the group as it unwound out of a gently rhythmic trance groove.
Speaking of the blues, tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger has a connection with them that goes deeper than most. His brand-new live album, Pivot, comprises two lengthy explorations of Bukka White classics. Last night at Smalls, he made another live recording with his quartet, Jason Palmer on trumpet, Kim Cass on bass and Ian Froman on drums. After Preminger and the group had stayed pretty much within themselves, playing their cards close to the vest, very puristically as they do on Pivot, it was a real rush to watch them finally jump and spiral out of control with a pretty wild free interlude late in the set. They went back to dusky and evocative and tersely melodic with their closing number, Mississippi John Hurt’s I Shall Not Be Moved, Palmer anchoring the sound as Froman built toward a steady hailstorm, Preminger finally cutting loose and wailing to the rafters, making the song’s title all the more ironic. Let’s hope this one makes it onto the record as a pure, unedited thrill.