This three-CD collection of previously released and unreleased sessions from disparate labels by pianist/composer Randy Weston is important for at least a couple of reasons: it captures important early work by a significant figure in jazz, and it collects some sterling all-star sessions. From 1958 to 1963, Weston was in the midst of a transformation ó from a Monk-and-Ellington-influenced hard-bop pianist/composer to a man whose first-hand research in Morocco and West Africa created a body of work unlike any other. These sessions yielded the earliest recordings of his by-now classic "Little Niles" and "Hi Fly." Abetted by heavyweights like Ray Copeland, Johnny Griffin, Kenny Dorham, Roy Haynes, and trombonist/arranger (and career-long collaborator) Melba Liston, Weston produced models of small-ensemble jazz. Itís especially exciting to hear the heaviest of the heavies, Coleman Hawkins, join the group for the Live at the Five Spot date and, as you might expect, enthusiastically eat up the leaderís harmonies.
A trio session with bassist Peck Morrison and drummer Connie Kay mixes traditionals like "Nobody Knows the Trouble Iíve Seen" and "I Got Rhythm" with Westonís own asymmetrical compositions. A previously unreleased 1960 quartet session with the baritone-saxophonist Cecil Payne is a great find ó Payne comes across with the heft and warmth of Harry Carney and the agility of Gerry Mulligan. The 1960 Uhuru Afrika overflows with the feelings of the time; with its somber recitations and sentimental vocals (featuring lyrics by Langston Hughes), itís the only session here that sounds at all dated. But by the 1963 album Highlife, Weston has found his musical and cultural identity. Bobby Bensonís "Niger Mambo" has both dancelike poppiness and concert-jazz gravity, and the orchestral breadth of Westonís own "In Memory Of" puts him in the realm of Ellington and Mingus, especially in the Duke-like assuredness of his own piano playing. It doesnít hurt that soloists like Copeland, Booker Ervin, and Budd Johnson are along for the ride.