June 24, 2024

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Gerald Cleaver’s music is rooted his own life: Video, Photos

I first heard Gerald Cleaver playing with pianist Kris Davis at the Knitting Factory in 2002, and I was immediately intrigued.

His sound drew me in— controlled, focussed, warm. That was easy, but I was happily baffled by what he played. Nothing he did was typical, obvious, or referenced something I knew, yet everything fit together and made sense.

Soon after, I was able to meet and talk to Gerald. He couldn’t have been kinder or more generous— inviting me to his shows, giving me records to hear, telling me about drummers to study, dispensing advice and wisdom while we waited for the F train.

He’s been a presence in the music and in my mind for over twenty years: time for a deep dive into his beginnings.

Born May 4, 1963, Gerald Cleaver is a son of Detroit MI— his career embodies Detroit’s deep contribution to the music. His father, John Cleaver, was a noted jazz drummer who played with Joe Henderson, Tommy Flanagan, and others.
Gerald grew up hearing jazz at home, and was playing drums as a child. In his teens, he branched out, got involved in Detroit’s music scene, forming tight connections with local masters including trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, saxophonist Donald Walden, and pianist Kenny Cox.

“Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette, John Bonham, Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Paul Motian, Roy Haynes and really, tens more. I have to mention the late great Roy Brooks, Lawrence Williams, George Goldsmith and Rich ‘Pistol’ Allen (of Motown fame) as four who I knew personally and were really encouraging to me, coming up.” — Gerald Cleaver to John Stevenson, arstash.com

In 1987, Cleaver enrolled at the University of Michigan as a music education major. By the early Nineties, Gerald was part of a diverse group of young players around Detroit including pianist Craig Taborn (a Minneapolis native) and saxophonist/composer Andrew Bishop, who became two of Gerald’s frequent collaborators. Other colleagues included saxophonist J. D. Allen, bassists Tim Flood, Paul Keller, and Rodney Whitaker, and pianists Rick Roe and Jacob Sacks.

In 1993, Cleaver received a grant to study with master drummer Victor Lewis, first meeting him in NYC, and later traveling with Lewis as he toured with saxophonist Bobby Watson’s group, Horizon. In an incident which he shared with me many times, it was on that trip that Victor told Gerald that he (Gerald) was a jazz musician, was “one of us”.

Three little words….“one of us”….

With that tiny sentence, did Victor Lewis gave permission to something within Gerald, some inner voice or potential, and drawing out what was there? “You’re one of us.” Those words have power. It’s almost like Victor Lewis cast a spell.

Cleaver made his first widely-available record on a date led by bassist and fellow Detroit native Rodney Whitaker. Whitaker’s Hidden Kingdom (DIW, recorded 1996) features Gerald on the Mingus-adjacent “Childhood” and a few other tracks. It’s startling to hear Gerald’s confident, mature conception right out of the gate.

A real breakthrough was Roscoe Mitchell hiring me to be a part of the Note Factory in 1995. That singular event set me off on my career path. Looking back, Roscoe helped clarify my musical aesthetics which inform all of my playing, in both the so-called inside and outside. —Gerald Cleaver, 15questions.net

Perhaps best known as a founder of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, legendary multi-reedist and composer Roscoe Mitchell’s Note Factory was a nine-piece group which, at first, included two drummers (Gerald and Tani Tabbal), two pianists (Craig Taborn and Matthew Shipp), two bassists (William Parker and Detroit legend Jaribu Shahid) plus trumpeter Hugh Ragin and trombonist/composer George Lewis. In May 1997, this line-up recorded Nine To Get Ready for ECM.

Nine To Get Ready is great, focused squarely on Mitchell’s compositions and concepts. “Hop Hip Bip Bir Rip” starts in 3/4 but becomes a relentless surge, with Gerald (in the right channel) abandoning the meter and carving out his own space. On the swinging “Bessie Harris”, Cleaver is dense but transparent, going his own way while joining the fray, culminating in a duet with Tabbal (who’s playing djembe). “Big Red Peaches” is a brief, humorous rock tune, complete with distorted guitar, vocals and a heavy beat from Gerald.

By the late Nineties, Cleaver was busy. While living in Michigan, he recorded with legendary free improviser/saxophonist/pianist Charles Gayle, and visited NYC to gig and record with scores of up-and-coming players, including saxophonist Bill McHenry (Graphic, Fresh Sound, recorded 1998) bassist Chris Lightcap (Lay Up, Fresh Sound, recorded 1999), pianist Ben Waltzer (Metropolitan Motion, Fresh Sound, 1999), and guitarist Joe Morris with violist Mat Maneri (Live At The Old Office, Knitting Factory Records, 1999).
Gerald Cleaver | Claude Joannis | Flickr

A whole host of brilliant drummers were coming to the forefront at the time— Jeff Ballard, Jim Black, Brian Blade, Adam Cruz, Rodney Green, Eric McPherson, Ben Perowsky, Jorge Rossy, Bill Stewart, Nasheet Waits, Kenny Wollesen, and others.

Individuals all, one quality they shared was an openness to every jazz practice, indeed, every musical tradition. It was all fair game— free improvisation, original tunes, swinging standards, global rhythms, chamber music textures, backbeats….. they could do all of it, on a high level, with style and individuality. With these drummers at work, NYC jazz was exploding with energy and possibility.

This is the environment in which I first heard Gerald Cleaver, and he seemed to epitomize the moment.

Five releases recorded in 2000 from a cross-section of Gerald’s music and provide some background depth to the music he’s making today. Though there’s some shared personnel, no two records sound alike:
  • Craig Taborn: Light Made Lighter (Thirsty Ear, released 2001)
  • Matthew Shipp: Pastoral Composure (Thirsty Ear, released 2000)
  • Rene Marie: How Can I Keep From Singing? (MaxJazz, released 2000)
  • Gerald Cleaver: Adjust (Fresh Sound, released 2001)
  • Mark Helias: Roof Rights (Bandcamp, released 2020)

All of these records are streaming or available for download.

As always: the story of jazz is not the history of jazz on record. Records cannot tell the whole truth, but, heard in the proper context, neither can they lie.

Recorded in 2000 and produced by pianist Matthew Shipp, pianist Craig Taborn’s Light Made Lighter is a classic trio album, and one of the most important of the era. It spread like wildfire through my peer group and seemed like a new world. For those unfamiliar with Gerald Cleaver, start here.

Often, the compositions seem to consist of a bass line and little else. But what bass lines!— memorable, idiosyncratic, suggesting genres and traditions yet ultimately sounding like nothing but themselves.

Taborn, bassist Chris Lightcap, and Gerald tease apart and expand upon the bass lines, with much drama in the emergence of the theme from improvisation. Light Made Lighter is totally unique, very beautiful, quite mysterious, and a lot of fun.

The first track, “Bodies We Came Out Of pt. 1”, is an 8-bar bass line in a ponging 5/8. Gerald, holding a blastick and shaker in his right hand (with an empty left hand that eventually grabs a stick) weaves a detailed tapestry, on or just above the grid. He’s unencumbered by the meter and form, yet still honors them. Brilliant.

“Crocodile” begins in rubato, but Gerald subtly guides the trio to a straight-eighth 7/4 bass line, blending the two worlds— Cleaver is almost rubato over the 7/4 vamp and nearly in tempo during the rubato. At the top of “St. Ranglehold”, Gerald gently undoes a precise groove in 5/4 for a wild collective improvisation; when the melody enters, it feels inevitable.

Gerald Cleaver Profiled and Interviewed About New Album – Avant Music News

The second version of “Bodies We Came Out Of”, as compelling as the first, concludes the album, slyly demonstrating the open-endedness of the music. That second take seems to say: this could go on forever.

No matter how many times I hear this album, I feel like I’m missing something, which is one of the great pleasures of recorded music. That feeling of missing something keeps us returning to our favorite records over and over and over…..

Bravo Craig Taborn, Chris Lightcap, and Gerald Cleaver!

On pianist Matthew Shipp’s Pastoral Composure, Shipp and Cleaver are joined by bassist-composer-bandleader-impresario William Parker and the late, great trumpeter Roy Campbell Jr., huge personalities who define the sound of any group with their charisma and conception.

Cleaver, tellingly, is almost the straight man here. It’s a common jazz paradox, one heard all the time— Gerald is doing his own thing, seldom “interacting” with the soloists. This somehow makes the music more exciting, not less. Gerald’s relative reserve makes everything sound wilder and freer.

“Gesture” is a simple minor-key theme based on two chords over a pedal point, similar to a Mal Waldron or Keith Jarrett vamp. For the entire track, Gerald plays a subtly altering, flickering march on snare and bass— no cymbals, no toms, no fireworks. Killing.

“Visions” is a medium-swing D minor blues. While Shipp barks out an Ellington voicing and Parker walks, Gerald holds it down, playing the ride cymbal and some fancy bass/snare combinations.

“Frere Jacques” is special— I can’t imagine another group who could tackle a nursery rhyme so naturally and successfully. Gerald’s cool approach might be the crucial element, the necessary ingredient to make this work.

MaxJazz was an important label in the early 20, with a special focus on vocalists. Singer Rene Marie was a late bloomer who launched her career in her mid-40s, and her success helped put MaxJazz on the map.

Recorded a mere seven days after Matthew Shipp’s Pastoral Composure, Rene Marie’s How Can I Keep From Singing? is a great album with a must-hear Gerald Cleaver performance. The rhythm section is truly all-star: Cleaver, bassist Ugonna Okegwo, and none other than Mulgrew Miller on piano.

For many musicians, going from Matthew Shipp to Rene Marie would be jarring, but Gerald shows the commonality. In fact, I heard the connection— the end of Pastoral Composure flows nicely into the beginning of How Can I Keep From Singing?, Matthew Shipp segueing smoothly to Mulgrew Miller, proof, if any was needed, that ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are the same thing. Try it and hear for yourself.

Highlights are many: “Tennessee Waltz” is played in a nasty medium-slow 4/4 , with Cleaver’s strong, clear, supple beat in center frame: this is the truth. “Tennessee Waltz” in 4/4: that’s good.

We get a light, dancing backbeat from Gerald on Nina Simone’s “Four Women”, plus perfect ballad playing on “The Very Thought Of You”.

I love the piano solo on “I Like You” (with great lyrics from Marie), a chance to hear Gerald and Mulgrew mix it up a little. Cleaver’s brushes on “A Sleepin’ Bee” are the law.


Adjust (credited to Gerald Cleaver Veil Of Names, a gorgeous band moniker), is Cleaver’s first leader date, rich with implications. Recorded in October 2000, and featuring a sextet of Cleaver, violist Mat Maneri, Andrew Bishop on woodwinds, guitarist Ben Monder, Craig Taborn on organ, Reid Anderson on electric bassAdjust pairs nicely with Jim Black’s first AlasNoAxis album: both are ‘electric’ albums with rock-like textures, both are drummer-led and drummer-composed, both recorded in 2000.

In New York, AlasNoAxis played at Tonic, and I bet Veil of Names did too. This was a scene, which helps explain why Adjust is so much fun to hear.

“Hover” is in rubato time, I suppose, but Cleaver generates such momentum and direction that ‘rubato’ doesn’t really cover it— just hear his multi-directional heat under Monder and Maneri’s co-solo. Cleaver and the band channel some CTI vibes on “Force Of Habit”, with Gerald’s huge slo-jam backbeat underpinning a great Taborn organ solo.

Of the longer suite-like pieces, “Way Truth Life” is the most wide-ranging. A gorgeous Monder intro gives way to a gently swinging melody and Reid Anderson solo, before morphing into a bass line that sounds like Light Made Lighter for a great Andrew Bishop clarinet solo.

Playing complex arrangements with a band of hot soloists, Gerald makes the transitions and contrasts feel natural and inevitable. He’s right at home on some big drums with an electric sextet, just as he is with a piano trio. Adjust is a special record— it should be more widely heard.

Gerald Cleaver | Pi Recordings

Finally, in November 2000, bassist/composer Mark Helias’s Open Loose, a trio of himself, Gerald, and saxophonist Tony Malaby, traveled to Australia for the Wangaratta Jazz Festival. Helias arranged his music for sextet, augmenting the trio with trumpeter Scott Tinkler, David Ades on alto sax, and trombonist James Greening, three important Australian musicians. Recorded and released as Roof Rights, it’s a beautiful album of Helias’s expansive, genre-fluid compositions, and a fitting coda to our look at Gerald in 2000.

On Roof Rights, every facet of Gerald we’ve explored seems to come together— straight-ahead mastery (“Gentle Ben” a slow, swinging 3/4, a personal favorite), avant-garde accelerating agent (“Pick and Roll”), selfless groover (“Handycam”), rock-jazz positivist (“Rocky Road”) and master ensemble player (“End Of Middle/Bing Bang”). Gerald lights up Helias’s brilliant music as naturally as Rene Marie’s or Matthew Shipp’s.

Five records, each unlike the others, recorded over eleven months, nearly twenty-five years ago. Each sounds fresh and contemporary today; Gerald was making Future Music.

He’s doing it now too. Just check out his recent electronic albums Signs and Griots, both important, challenging, and a lot of fun, a new territory in his music

Music stitches people together in a profound way; Gerald Cleaver lives the experience of all music as one. But then, drummers have always disregarded boundaries between genres. Its drummers, I think, who most clearly show the human connections which undergird all the music we care about.

Happily, Gerald is alive and well. I can’t wait to hear what he’s up to next. I know I’ll hear his family, sense his mentors, and be a part of his community. Whatever he does is what we’ll all be doing, eventually.

Gerald Cleaver Bridges the Divide Between Structure and Freedom

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