The pianist Randy Weston is an enormous man with an equally enormous piano sound that he tempers with lots of musical space, combining compositional elements of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk with attractive melodic lines, simple vamps and long, percussive grooves. It’s a formula that works for him. With substantial tunes like “Loose Wig,” “Tangier Bay” and “Saucer Eyes,” his material is promising ground for improvisation. Much like Ellington, Weston likes to feature specific soloists on specific numbers, by doing so essentially creating “portraits” of people and places. Saga primarily focuses on piano with bass, drums and percussion (Alex Blake, Billy Higgins and Neil Clarke). But probably the album’s most persuasive voice comes from Billy Harper, a powerhouse tenor saxophonist who infuses “The Beauty of it All” and “Saucer Eyes” with his customary fire. On the latter tune, alto saxophonist Talib Kibwe adds a tart and trenchant solo, an effective foil for the tenor.
Having lived in Morocco for a lengthy period of time, Weston’s method for compositional and improvisational development is as much informed by his years in North Africa as by American jazz. He takes his time, staying with simple chords, allowing a piece to move slowly across the landscape. You’re not aware of how deep the groove Weston establishes is until you notice that you’ve settled into it. This is evident on a piece like “Jahjuka,” which, although nearly a ballad, has an insinuating conga line. The groove is more overt on “Uncle Neemo,” where Blake and Higgins lock into a low-key but irrefutable propulsion that eventually segues into a tap dance of a drum solo. Weston is also a nonpareil blues pianist, and hearing trombonist Benny Powell vocalize his way through “F.E.W. Blues” is an album highpoint. Saga is mature jazz. There’s no flag waving, no overt technical displays. But it burns with a subtle fire that is very compelling on its own terms.