Milford Graves was a mentor, among many other things: percussionist, teacher, self-taught, herbalist, acupuncturist, vegan, and inventor of his own martial art. Born in Jamaica, Queens, he was at the forefront of 1960s free jazz in the New York Art Quartet, embarking on a visionary journey until his death in 2021. He played all kinds of drums with all kinds of things: irons for tires, pestles. , the branches of trees—and developed a style based on the human heart but undid the pleasing falsehood that it beats in 4/4 time. To see him perform—too many arms splattering, a whistle or microphone in his mouth, or all of these and more—is to witness the great howl of the universe vibrating in a deadly frame.
For four decades, Graves taught at Bennington College, where Joe Westerlund was one of his students. Westerlund is a Wisconsin native who has spent most of his musical career in North Carolina. He got his start as the drummer for the starkly psychedelic American band Megafaun in the 2000s and added his subtle, mumbling time to many projects, notably with Justin Vernon’s Camp (that’s the Wisconsin connection) and Sylvan Esso/Mountain Man’s Camp. (The Bennington Connection). It was in Sylvan Esso’s studio where he recorded elegies for drifthis third solo percussion album, a year into his new life as a student without a teacher.
Graves was not the only role model whose loss, or impending loss, Westerlund grieved while developing the album. There was his sick mother-in-law, for whom he hung the cosmos on a mobile with a slowly revolving silver miniature, “Prelude to Stillness.” And there was his friend Miles Cooper Seaton, who had been killed in a car accident the year before. “The Circle,” which incorporates Seaton’s vocals and a hailstorm that Westerlund recorded after learning of his death, is a seven-minute cleanup of what sounds like rain hitting small bells and gongs. It’s the centerpiece of an album that debunks preconceived notions about what solo percussion sounds like.
Emphasizing a resonant, melodic palette of gamelan, thumb piano, idiophones, and metallophones, elegies for drift it moves in periodic waves, in small impulses and intimate suggestions, nothing as soft or insistent as the heartbeat. “You can’t put a dang-danka-dang and call it the rhythm of the swing,” Graves said. To him, swinging was survival, a way to keep moving by any means necessary. Westerlund does not put a dang-danka-dang. With warm electronic fillings, impressionistic colors and a singing countenance, elegies for drift it is primarily an environmental record. It’s significant that “The Circle” has little obvious relationship to Seaton’s music on Akron/Family, just as the rest of the record overtly resembles Graves, who taught individuality above all else. Westerlund has found his own yogic tonic; he learned the lessons well from him.