G. Calvin Weston laughs a lot when he talks. Or maybe he just talks a lot when he laughs.
If you spend any time around the drummer and composer—watching him play, chilling in his company—you’d know that his easy chortle (fondly remembered by old bandmate John Lurie in his recent memoir The History of Bones) comes as part of the entire package of propulsive paradiddles, complex polyrhythms, and ferocious four-on-the-floors. Even when he’s at his quietest, you sense his giddiness, a muffled chuckle rather than his and his drums’ thundering guffaw.
“I used to beat on my neighbors’ car,” Weston says—laughing, of course—from his Soundscape Recording Lab home studio about the loud, frenetic feel that has always been part of his style and that he honors still on a handful of releases in 2021, which has been, remarkably, his busiest professional year ever. His career, it’s worth remembering, includes stints with Ornette Coleman, James Blood Ulmer, John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards, and a lifetime friendship/collaboration with bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma.
Ask Tacuma about Weston and he’ll say this: “With all humility, we will go down in history as one of the most important drum and bass sections in avant-garde, improvised, creative music of the early 21st century. How can we not after cutting our musical baby teeth with the master himself, Ornette Coleman?”
“Ornette and Blood opened my creativity. You had to truly think on your feet.”
For Weston, everything started with North Philly and R&B.
“I became interested in playing drums when my uncle used to take me to a theater called the Uptown, where all the Motown acts used to come through,” he says of the famed North Broad Street palace where great R&B, jazz, doo-wop, funk, and gospel acts of the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s performed. “There used to be a matinee show every Sunday at the Uptown, and the drummers, all of them, really … they blew me away.”
Knowing that Grant Calvin Weston began to dwell in rhythm’s kingdom through the power of soul rather than jazz gives us insight into his musical approach—and adds humor to the story of how he hooked up with Coleman.
“I knew nothing about the avant-garde or the free jazz thing when I was 17 years old, before I started playing it,” he says now, ramping up for a good yarn. “Then I’m still living on Chadwick in North Philly, and I’m playing and thinking about Earth, Wind & Fire, Average White Band, the Isley Brothers, KC and the Sunshine Band, and Tower of Power—R&B stuff—for this cover band I’d been in since 1972, Bad Influence.”
In 1976, the teenage Weston became part of another band: Veto, led by Charles Ellerbe, Ornette Coleman’s guitarist, when he wasn’t busy jamming with the saxophonist. “Charles lived down the block from me. Then there was this other cat who used to walk around the neighborhood with a Rickenbacker bass strapped around him, selling oils and incense. I didn’t know him at that time, but that turned out to be Jamaaladeen Tacuma—who also played with Ornette. It was Charlie who told me that Ornette was looking for a drummer. Jamaal too. But I didn’t even know who Ornette Coleman was.”
At that time, Coleman had already moved full-force into his harmolodic theory of improvisation—which treats melody, harmony, and rhythm as equally important—and was developing his dense and daring electric band Prime Time, featuring two guitarists, two bassists, and two drummers.
“When Charlie invited me, I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ I had never even been to New York before so that was exciting enough,” says Weston says through loud laughter. “I get to the rehearsal studio and [drummer] Denardo [Coleman, Ornette’s son] was there. [Guitarist] Bern Nix was there. [Bassist] Al McDowell. Charlie and Jamaaladeen. [Drummer] Ronald Shannon Jackson too. I didn’t play at first. I listened. Ornette counts them down fast. 1234BAM. I got hit like a freight train. What did I get myself into? I could feel myself stuttering in my brain.”
Weston then does an impersonation of Coleman that’s so accurate, it’s as haunting as it is hilarious. “God rest his soul, I can impersonate him like no one else could … Anyway, Shannon gets up from his kit. I sit down. And. I. Do. Not. Know. What. To. Do. 1234BAM. I’m stuck. So I start playing swing. And out of everything that was going on, free, he stops me and says, ‘This is not jazz.’ So I got off the stage and just listened. He invited me to come back the next week and gave me a list of his tunes. Mind you, I had to get home to Philly to study as I was still in high school.”
What Weston wound up studying was his neighbor’s Mahavishnu Orchestra records with pile-driving Billy Cobham, one after another, over and over. He’d pick a Mahavishnu song (“Say, ‘Birds of Fire’”), then match it with an Ornette tune (“How about ‘Song X?’”). When he got to the next Prime Time rehearsal and the saxophonist called out a tune, Weston would emulate Cobham’s Mahavishnu rhythm. “After each tune I played, Ornette said, ‘That’s cool, Calvin.’ By the end of the rehearsal, he asked me if I could stay in New York to keep practicing. The next week, we had to go to Europe. That’s how that went.”
“The whole premise of harmolodics is to think in terms of purity,” Tacuma notes. “Purity in sound, purity in execution, purity in the process. Keeping a freshness in your playing and in using all of the sound palette, never repeating yourself. This was all very adventurous coming towards two young black kids who were brought up on afternoons at the Uptown Theater, listening to R&B and soul music on WDAS-FM.”
There was a definite learning curve in play; the members of Prime Time were often treated like students in a classroom. “We even had old school desks with chairs attached that we’d gather around in a circle with him in the center,” Weston recalls with obvious affection. “We had our instruments next to us while Ornette talked about melody and harmony and such. That’s how I learned to play melody because that’s what Coleman wanted me to do, improvise around melody with my rhythm. He was great.”
From there, Coleman, Weston, and Co. recorded Of Human Feelings in 1979, In All Languages in 1987, and Virgin Beauty in 1988. “I learned the world from Ornette,” Weston says in a surprising sotto voce.