G. Calvin Weston and the Known Unknown
Partially inspired by personal tragedy, the drummer reinvigorates his career
Late one night in May of 2009, G. Calvin Weston sat back on the couch in his North Philadelphia living room and turned on the television. The local news cut in to announce the breaking story of an unidentified young man killed by a hit-and-run driver at an intersection about a mile away from Weston’s house. It was one of those tragic stories that you see every day on TV and only afford a sliver of your attention. On this occasion, however, Weston sat upright, enveloped by a strange sensation.
“You know in the Star Trek movies when they would say, ‘Beam me up,’ and the beam comes down over them?” Weston asked, sitting on that same couch a little more than three years later. “Right then and there, when the man on the news said that, something like that came down and grabbed me. I think that was the hands of God coming down and touching me. I automatically knew that it was my son.”
Calvin Dominic Weston-Wilkerson was killed shortly after 2 a.m., while walking the four blocks from his bus stop to the home he shared with his mother and siblings. It was three days before his 19th birthday.
The loss of his oldest child naturally had a profound impact on Weston. Each of the drummer’s three new albums is dedicated to Dominic, and in large part their very existence can be credited to his influence. “Music was what kept me from exploding,” Weston explained, unconsciously running his fingers over the large silver crucifix around his neck. “Dominic’s spirit is always with me. If I’m traveling alone, I always know he’s going with me. That keeps me aware that at any given time, shit can happen. We can be taken away from here in a millisecond, just like him. He had something to do with all those CDs and all of the music that I’m going to play for the rest of my life.”
These three self-released new discs—Play Out Loud, Cosmic Miles and Of Alien Feelings—instantly quadruple Weston’s leader discography. His sideman catalogue is extensive, with his stints in Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time and John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards as well as lengthy runs with James Blood Ulmer and James Carter, and he’s shared billing on collaborative outings with the likes of Billy Martin and Derek Bailey. But these releases mark the first time he has recorded as a leader since his 1989 debut, Dance Romance.
Typical of Weston’s eclectic, inclusive approach to playing, each of these documents is wholly different from the others. Play Out Loud is a completely improvised session with keyboardist and fellow Lounge Lizard alum John Medeski, Russian-born, Philly-based violinist Marina Vishnyakova, and bassist Elliot Garland. The latter two are also members of Weston’s Mahavishnu Orchestra tribute project, Treasures of the Spirit. “It was very specifically free,” Medeski said of the recording. “Calvin had very general concepts of what he wanted to do, the mood and character that he wanted to accomplish, and I think that’s a great way to work with a band. He was letting everyone manifest each idea in the way that they felt it. It wasn’t totally random freeness.”
That approach, Weston said, is his preferred method of creation. “To just jam out with improvisation, you have to have lots of imagination and really listen. Improvised music is more freedom of expression. It’s more of you.”
Unlike the organic spontaneity of that session, Weston’s two other new projects are Frankenstein-like constructions. He met the Italian duo of guitarist Roberto Cervi and bassist Mario Mazzenga through Facebook, one of the methods the restless drummer uses to arrange side gigs while touring. (When we spoke in late August, Weston was about to embark on a European tour with James Blood Ulmer and was busily working social media to fill his time between and even after the Ulmer shows.)
While staying with Cervi during a tour through Italy, Weston set up his Roland drum pads and handed off a batch of electronic beats to the guitarist. Two years later he got them back, complete with guitar and bass parts. Weston picked up his trumpet, which he’d originally studied in high school and later revisited, and added horn improvisations. He enlisted longtime collaborator Elliott Levin and Treasures of the Spirit keyboardist David Dzubinski, and recruited steel-drum player David Galleher for two tracks after seeing him playing on the sidewalk outside Philly’s City Hall. The result is the android jazz-funk of Cosmic Miles, akin to Miles Davis’ collaborations with Marcus Miller combined with Weston’s jam-band looseness.
Of Alien Feelings began life as a series of drumset improvisations Weston recorded at home, mainly to give his third-floor home studio a test run. Through a mutual friend he handed off the tapes to Chicago guitarist Karl E.H. Seigfried, who overdubbed guitar and bass parts. Encouraged by Weston to continue, he then sent those tapes to his heroes from the prog-rock and jazz worlds. The off-kilter prog-jazz hybrid features solo turns by Hawkwind saxophonist Nik Turner, guitarist Todd Rundgren, Supertramp saxophonist John Helliwell and trumpeter Jack Walrath, among others. Weston ultimately called in a few favors as well, leading to involvement by Medeski and Free Form Funky Freqs bandmate Vernon Reid. “Calvin is a composerly drummer,” Seigfried said. “I just tried to figure out what he was hearing in his head and to find players who could bring out those different colors. I wanted to move it into a cross-generational, international, multicultural, interracial thing.”
Tomorrow: Five must-own recordings featuring G. Calvin Weston
Originally published in November 2012