My feature article on drummer-composer-bandleader Gerald Cleaver ran in the November 2013 issue of JazzTimes — the link to the online excerpt is here. I also wrote a concluding section that didn’t make it into the magazine and wanted to share it for posterity. See below.
[Gerald] Cleaver debuted as a leader in 2001 with the moody Adjust, a quasi-electric statement from his band Veil of Names (a James Joyce reference). Taborn played keyboards and organ; Reid Anderson made his first appearance on electric bass; Ben Monder played scorching guitar alongside Mat Maneri on viola and Michigan-based Andrew Bishop — Cleaver’s “secret weapon” — on reeds (Bishop plays in Violet Hour and Uncle June as well). “Hover,” the opening track on Adjust, reappears in a slower, elongated form to lead off Life in the Sugar Candle Mines. Cleaver mentions the idea of “covering” one’s own song, in the manner of Thelonious Monk and Bill Frisell.
Since his debut, Cleaver has made increasing use of spoken word. During a late May showcase at SEEDS, Ohad Talmor’s space in Brooklyn, Cleaver and the rest of Black Host all read aloud from different books. Alto saxophonist Darius Jones continued reading after the others fell away, though Cleaver would still shout or murmur isolated lines from what he’d spoken earlier — “whatever came to mind, I just followed my own story,” he says. “I like that speech or song modifies our expectations: everything is reframed.”
Cooper-Moore, who plays piano and fantastically haunting synth on Sugar Candle Mines, remembers the SEEDS gig: “That actually hurt. It’s a loud band, a big sound — it’s like a rock band. I think it’s a new way of feeling and thinking.” Speaking highly of his Black Host colleagues Jones, Brandon Seabrook (guitar) and Pascal Niggenkemper (bass), Cooper-Moore adds: “I’m the old guy in the band. I’m 67 next week, and that’s how you don’t get old, man. You don’t get old if you play with young cats. You might think you’re cutting-edge but there are young cats coming behind you. You learn from young people by listening to them, not telling them. That’s what’s in this band. People who are learners.”
“I’m not trying to get wilder,” Cleaver says of Black Host’s experimental vibe. “Things are getting clearer, sound in general is getting clearer, and I just want it to be more powerful. Not necessarily louder, but clearer.” The name Black Host holds no special significance, but Sugar Candle Mines is loosely inspired by the early 20th-century anatomist Emil Zuckerkandl. “Vienna at that time was a real progressive place,” Cleaver says. “There was a lot of cross-pollination between the arts and sciences, way more than we experience now. I was reading about Zuckerkandl and his wife Berta, who ran a salon from their home, and the name just popped out at me. … [‘Sugar Candle Mines’] relates to the unconscious, going beneath the surface and getting to something much deeper than what you see or hear.”
Cleaver’s albums project a sense of mystery as well as narrative — they’re never simply an assortment of tunes. Taborn compares it to “putting together a book of poetry.” On the foldout jacket of Gerald Cleaver’s Detroit are black-and-white photos of the city, old and recent, bleak but with an odd grandeur. The back cover of Be It As I See It has band-member portraits interspersed with Cleaver family snapshots from long ago.
“Memory is not what it seems,” Cleaver says. “So another aspect of Uncle June is I’m not remembering, I’m experiencing the people as if they were alive right now. The continuum is free-flowing. I might have a picture of my grandfather as a boy but I want to be that boy in 1910, or the retired autoworker in 1972. That’s why I say the record is dedicated to everybody, because the experiences are real and continuing for all of the ancestors. Our ancestors’ experiences are lived through us today.”
Jeremy Pelt included a ravishing ballad of Cleaver’s, “From a Life of the Same Name,” on his 2010 release Men of Honor. It’s also the final cut on Be It As I See It, where Tony Malaby’s tenor sax, Maneri’s viola and Bishop’s bass clarinet crookedly interweave, leading into beautiful solos from bassist Drew Gress and then Taborn. “I feel like I’ve had a couple of lives,” Cleaver says. “They feel like different lives, from being young in Detroit, never thought I would live in New York, then fast-forward to 2007 when that was written. That song is a bookend, in the same way the Detroit album is a certain kind of bookend. Everything I write definitely speaks to me. I have to get them out and then they speak to me. They have very specific things they have to say to me.”
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