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G. Calvin Weston and the Phoenix Orchestra: Dust and Ash (577)

A review of the drummer's album with a new seven-piece group

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G. Calvin Weston and The Phoenix Orchestra, Dust and Ash
The cover of Dust and Ash by G. Calvin Weston and the Phoenix Orchestra

With all due respect to Makaya McCraven, G. Calvin Weston is the original beat scientist. As a fledgling teenage drummer in Prime Time, Weston helped put Ornette Coleman’s revolutionary harmolodics aesthetic on the map, and his stretches with James “Blood” Ulmer, John Lurie, Marc Ribot, and James Carter have also yielded much fruit. The quality of his work as an avant-jazz sideman has long been recognized, but his wildly eclectic output as leader shouldn’t be overlooked: a trio of creatively omnivorous recordings in 2012 alone, followed by 2015’s Flying Kites (with guitarist Lucas Brode) and 2016’s solo set Improv Messenger. His latest is a nimble wonder of a record, a funk/jazz/rock tour de force that places his bandleader wizardry front and center.

Having laid down the backbeats on Coleman touchstones like 1988’s Virgin Beauty, Weston is certainly well-versed in melding both harmolodics and strings. On Dust and Ash, a seven-track program recorded with a new group called the Phoenix Orchestra (featuring two violinists and one cellist), the results of that combination are jaw-dropping. Weston’s intense love for the dizzying intricacies of John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra comes into play here, as well as the mangled guitar action of Ribot and the jam-band organ splatter of sometime collaborator John Medeski, backed by sublime string arrangements.

After a dreamy prelude (the minute-and-change opener, “With Open Wings”), Weston and the Phoenix Orchestra are on fire. Pulsating beats and rhythms, elastic bass grooves, and funk-heavy licks form the foundation of freakishly catchy tunes like “Incarnate” and “Dance with Shadows.” Throughout, Weston—working alongside keyboardist David Dzubinski—is a beats beast on the trap set. Nowhere is that more evident than on the near-seven-minute drum solo stunner, the aptly titled “Thunder.” You won’t hear a funkier record than Dust and Ash this year.

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