Graded on a Curve:
G. Calvin Weston &
The Phoenix Orchestra,
Dust and Ash

The Philadelphia-born drummer G. Calvin Weston is probably best-known for his work with James “Blood” Ulmer and as a member of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, though along with releasing numerous records as a leader he’s also played in the Lounge Lizards and with Marc Ribot. His latest and third for 577 Records pairs him with the Phoenix Orchestra, and it’s as jazzy-funky an affair as one might expect, but with some added treats, including dual violins (plus viola and cello), Weston blowing a little pocket trumpet, and even some vocals courtesy of Kayle Brecher. Vinyl lovers with a hankering for robust fusioneering have reason to rejoice; Dust and Ash is out on wax May 24.

Grant Calvin Weston’s connection to Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time is undeniably a major feather in the artist’s proverbial cap, though back in the day (i.e. the late ’80s) I’ll admit to being more struck with his work on James “Blood” Ulmer’s first two records, especially 1980’s classic Are You Glad To Be In America? This is partially because Coleman’s two earlier electric band outings, ’76’s Dancing in Your Head and ’78’s Body Meta, had already nailed me but good; the saxophonist’s ’80s albums featuring Weston weren’t just more of the same, but they can be evaluated as something of a refinement.

On the other hand, Ulmer’s second and third albums, both of which I’d heard before his ’78 debut for Artist House Tales of Captain Black (which featured Coleman and Weston’s Philly-based friend and future Prime Time cohort, bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma), were upon introduction both striking affairs. Over time the impact hasn’t lessened by much.

Are You Glad To Be In America? offers the selection “Jazz is the Teacher (Funk is the Preacher)”; its title is a decent summation of Weston’s mode of operation across the decades. To expand a bit, he’s drummed with all three members of Medeski Martin & Wood, contributed to the work of techno artist Tricky, and along with Tacuma, taken it far outside in trio with the late Brit avant guitarist Derek Bailey. A fine recent example of his aptitude with improvisational fire and power groove would be his work in the Young Philadelphians alongside guitarist-leader Marc Ribot, Tacuma, and guitarist Mary Halvorson.

Flying Kites, a duo record released in 2015 on 577 with co-billed guitarist Lucas Brode really underscores Weston’s talent for exploring ideas descended from non-crap fusion. The other prior outing for 557, 2016’s true solo album Improv Messenger, spotlighted his range as multi-instrumentalist, with Weston playing trumpet, guitar, bass, Moog bass, and keyboards in addition to the drums.

And so, this new LP, another co-bill, this time with the Phoenix Orchestra, can be viewed as a departure, expanding the lineup to nine contributors with a focus on strings as the band features violinists Carlos Santiago and Benjamin Sutin, violist Ashley Monique Vines, and cellist Ajibola Rivers. Along with Weston and singer Brecher, the group is completed by pianist-keyboardist David Dzubinski, electric bassist Elliot Garland, and electric guitarist Tom Spiker.

“With Open Wings” places Brecher, Dzubinski and the string section up front for a short opening prelude, lush and gorgeous, prior to the deft integration of heat and expansiveness that is the title track. While the ensemble string arrangements in “Dust and Ash” are superb, especially the initial grand sweep emerging a little over 90 seconds in, it’s really during the extended stretch of violin soloing, with Weston and Garland laying down a massively elastic and exploratory groove, that the music hits my personal fusion sweet spot.

Some might be thinking of another orchestra, namely Mahavishnu, and while that’s not inappropriate, Dust and Ash is distinct for a variety of reasons. Sure, high-flying violin is present, but for starters, that rhythmic dimension offers its own flavor as the record, being the byproduct of a large band, is more legitimately deserving of the orchestral tag overall.

Also, guitar takes a back seat in the title cut; when it steps to the fore across “Incarnate” it’s with a raw funk edge that’s quite distinct from McLaughlin. And so, enough of this comparison, as Brecher’s return in the fittingly titled and rewardingly executed “Abstraction” drives home the lack of depth in the assessment.

“Abstraction” leads into a considerably sharp change of pace, and while the avant-funk of “Dance with Shadows” doesn’t grab me as quite as hard as “Dust and Ash,” those recurring string section figures do ooze a deliciously urbane quality with more than a smidge of ’70s Philly in its makeup; Dzubinski’s electric keyboard solo is also a treat.

“Thunder” scales back to just Weston, which is to say that it’s a drum solo, and one with passages befitting its title, though the whole is appealingly varied (and unlike the rest of the set, it seems to have been recorded live). “Endurance” is a tidy cooker mingling electric jazz heft with string moves again nodding in the general direction of Gamble and Huff. The track delivers a sweet finale to Dust and Ash, a record that should leave Weston fans and lovers of jazz-funk well-pleased.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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