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.”
Wheelhouse (Dave Rempis/Jason Adasiewicz/Nate McBride), Boss of the Plains (Aerophonic) Joshua Abrams Quartet, Unknown Known (Rogue Art) Rob Mazurek Octet, Skull Sessions (Cuneiform)
By David R. Adler
The fine avant-garde jazz of today’s Chicago is generally not piano-driven, though much of it can be said to be vibraphone-driven. That’s thanks in large part to 36-year-old Jason Adasiewicz, an evolving master of the instrument, a huge harmonic and textural asset to bands led by Nicole Mitchell, Mike Reed and others.
Of three recent releases involving Adasiewicz as sideman or collaborator, Boss of the Plains by the co-led trio Wheelhouse offers the most arresting portrait of the vibraphone itself. There are no drums; the subtly gritty and ethereal Adasiewicz sound is captured in faithful detail, even when alto/baritone saxophonist Dave Rempis and bassist Nate McBride rise to levels of furious free-jazz intensity. Adasiewicz reverses his mallets to strike directly with the wood on “Song Juan” and “Song Sex Part 2.” On “Song Tree” and the longest track “Song for Teens” he takes a violin bow to the bars to create haunting, almost electronic effects. In a freely improvised setting he’s more likely to draw on extended techniques and highlight the vibraphone’s percussiveness.
While bassist Joshua Abrams’ extraordinary Unknown Known is also bracing and free in many respects, it’s far more compositional, with a wide dynamic range and a healthy appetite for groove and swing. Adasiewicz brings a lush, enveloping harmony to the session, filling the space with sustain and unsettling dissonance. The quartet features Abrams and Adasiewicz with tenor saxophonist/bass clarinetist David Boykin and drummer Frank Rosaly.
Abrams’ writing demands close attention. The opening title track is witheringly abstract until the end, when tenor and arco bass join together in a slow mournful unison line framed by a soft sustained trill from Adasiewicz. Track two, “Boom Goes the Moon,” is 11 minutes of convoluted beauty, with an unaccompanied vibes intro and a spine-tingling ballad section filling the second half. The closing “Pool,” way uptempo, is a three-and-a-half minute sendoff, almost a contemporary answer to “Cherokee.” The band’s harmonic language brings to mind classic Andrew Hill or Bobby Hutcherson sides for Blue Note, but with a good deal more sonic abstraction (the ghostly violin bow resurfaces early on in the longest piece “Leavening”).
On Skull Sessions by the Rob Mazurek Octet, Adasiewicz is less of a dominating presence, more a counterpoint to the shred guitar of Carlos Issa, the enchanting viola-like rabeca (and C melody saxophone) of Thomas Rohrer and the cornet and electronics of the leader. Nicole Mitchell, on piccolo and flute, is a vital solo voice and an engrossing parts player, at ease with the most challenging details of Mazurek’s compositions. There’s a big forward thrust to the band’s sound, a concentration of power in Guilherme Granado’s keyboards, John Herndon’s drumming, Mauricio Takara’s indispensable percussion (also cavaquinho) — and add to that a universe of electronics deployed by several members.
Still, Adasiewicz cuts through and makes himself indispensable. He’s a key melodic unison voice on the opening “Galactic Ice Skeleton” and a captivating soloist on “Passing Light Screams” (with a brief but crucial duo passage involving Mazurek). His solo intro to “Skull Caves of Alderon” — the strange metallic sound was produced by turning off the vibraphone’s motor — gives another glimpse of Adasiewicz as experimenter, pushing past the instrument’s limits while engaging the highly physical, intuitive side of his playing.
When the George Coleman New Octet began its second set at Jazz Standard (Dec. 11), one band member wasn’t easily visible: George Coleman. The veteran tenor saxophonist began his solo on “Waltzing Westward” and revealed his position, seated in a chair on the floor just off the bandstand. Though he played a diminished role next to five other horns — as well as eminent pianist Harold Mabern — Coleman still put himself forward as a player and conductor. His feature on “Body and Soul” was illuminating, though fellow tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander took the melody out and claimed some cadenza space of his own. Despite a flubbed transition or two, the band was impressive in its handling of big and broad harmonies, polished soli sections and genuinely surprising tempo changes. With Gary Smulyan on baritone saxophone, Alexander McCabe on alto, Adam Brenner on tenor and Bill Mobley on trumpet, the band didn’t lack for surefooted soloists, though it was hard to equal Mabern, whose driving attack and harmonic intelligence was a master class in itself. In the rhythm section were bassist Leon Dorsey and drummer George Coleman, Jr. — the younger Coleman not only swinging but sharing on-mic duties with his father, verbally setting up Ned Otter’s “Nothing But the Blues, Part 1.” This midtempo charger, with chromatic substitutions on the blues form, paired with Frank Foster’s “Square Knights of the Round Table” (another modern blues) to close the night with the band at its peak. (David R. Adler)
It was right of guitarist Matthew Stevens to utter profanity when describing the cold snowy weather just outside ShapeShifter Lab (Dec. 8). But without further ado the Toronto native got to work, kicking off a strong quintet set with pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Vicente Archer, drummer Eric Doob and percussionist Paolo Stagnaro. Stevens is quite capable of rocking out and lending an electric charge to the music of Christian Scott, Ben Williams, Erimaj, Next Collective and others. But his tone at ShapeShifter was clean and straightforward, from the opening “Processional” with its busy melodic line to the closing “Ashes,” which omitted Clayton and featured the drums-percussion unit more overtly. Stagnaro was not there simply for added color: his rhythmic assertions and subtle textures meshed with Doob’s precise, funky traps to define the music from the ground up. Clayton, too, was vibrant and essential, doubling on Rhodes and combining acoustic and electric at the same time on “Sunday,” a dreamy David Bowie cover. Some of the intricacy in Stevens’ sound and phrasing got obscured in the mix, though overall the instruments were clear and balanced. The guitar solos blazed, but despite the blizzard of notes one could sense how Stevens edits himself and listens deeply to the band. On “Grown-Ups” he followed Clayton’s rousing acoustic turn with a statement of utmost fluidity and taste. The music had its busy and aggressive side but also an atmosphere of melodic calm, of breath and space. (DA)
John O’Gallagher The Anton Webern Project (Whirlwind)
By David R. Adler
In tackling the music of Austrian serialist Anton Webern (1883-1945), alto saxophonist John O’Gallagher expands on a history of jazz-classical interchange that’s as old as jazz itself. Strong recent examples include Michael Bates’ Acrobat, devoted to Shostakovich; Samuel Blaser’s Consort In Motion and Mirror to Machaut, focused on Monteverdi and Machaut respectively; and The Bad Plus’ For All I Care with its acute renderings of Stravinsky, Ligeti, Babbitt and more.
On The Anton Webern Project, O’Gallagher approaches eight Webern compositions in a sextet format, with vocalist Margret Grebowicz joining on three tracks. Even if one knew nothing about the origin of the material, it would be a great listen: the band is immensely tight and texturally engrossing. Russ Lossing plays Rhodes and piano but spends much of his time on Hammond organ — a refreshing choice to interpret harmony this dark and dense. The instrument’s warmth and fullness cuts through and enhances every finely orchestrated passage with guitarist Pete McCann and vibraphonist Matt Moran.
Much of the musical language (and on the vocal cuts, German language) comes directly from Webern, though O’Gallagher added solo sections. Good thing: his alto work is superb, aided every step by the rhythmic alliance of bassist Johannes Weidenmuller and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. But the bass and drums share equal footing in the ensemble, bringing a loose, jazz-informed energy as they execute the most challenging and dissonant written counterpoint.
O’Gallagher’s complexity and drive can bring to mind alto contemporaries such as Steve Lehman, Greg Osby, Dave Binney and Tim Berne. There are hints of those aesthetic worlds in pieces such as “Schnell (after Op. 27),” “The Secret Code (after Op. 28)” and “Quartet (after Op. 22).” But O’Gallagher succeeds in shaping a distinctive band sound and orchestrational approach. His adaptations stand on their own, but they’re more eye-opening when played alongside Webern’s originals, with instrumentation ranging from solo piano to string quartet to orchestra to mixed chorus. Each is a world apart, yet O’Gallagher detects the common thread, captures the essence and enriches the music in the end.
When cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum and his sextet finished their first set at the Jazz Gallery (November 9th), someone from the venue reached up to put a delicate framed photograph on the wall. “Did we knock that down?” Bynum joked, but the thought was plausible: his band rose to room-shaking levels, particularly during the feral alto saxophone solos of Jim Hobbs. In some of the written passages, however, Hobbs brought a flute-like sensitivity, meshing with Bynum and tuba/bass trombonist Bill Lowe in moments full of warmth and subtle color. (The horn players all wore fedoras, which was part of the vibe.) The work, “Navigation (Possibility Abstract XVII),” lasted the full set and would change significantly in the next set (“Possibility Abstract XVIII,” Bynum explained). This is the method of Navigation (Firehouse 12), the sextet’s new release, which spans two CDs and two LPs yet includes just one piece, played four times. Each reading has common elements but a radically different outcome. A band needs a strong identity to pull this off, but with guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Tomas Fujiwara completing the lineup, strength was no issue. The Halvorson-Lowe pairing was rich — Bynum was smart to have them play unison lines, fresh and unexpected. Fujiwara balanced complete freedom with undulating groove and never overpowered the room. Filiano offered not just low-end foundation but a contrapuntal voice, introducing new sounds throughout the journey. (David R. Adler)
Since the inception of Brian Blade’s Fellowship Band, pianist and cofounder Jon Cowherd has forged a distinctive sound as one of its principal composers. With Mercy (ArtistShare), Cowherd’s debut as a leader, he gives that poignant, reflective sound an even fuller spotlight. More than ever, he also shows his range and hard-swinging fervor as a pianist, as was evident at Dizzy’s Club (November 11th), where he took the stage with guitarist Mike Moreno, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Rudy Royston. The quartet played with such fire and polish that one didn’t miss the bigger names on the album itself (Bill Frisell, John Patitucci, Brian Blade). The compositions were elaborate and beautifully conceived, beginning with the uptempo “The Columns” and moving right into the sweeping three-part “Mercy Suite.” The tension-filled “Newsong” began as a Royston feature but also gave Moreno and the leader room to stretch. Cowherd ended with a nod to his New Orleans past (he’s a Kentucky-born Loyola alum), offering the gospel-tinged “Poor Folks,” an Allen Toussaint number from 1971. This was the quartet at its rockingest — one riff sort of brought to mind Deep Purple. But just before that, “Surrender’s Song” highlighted Cowherd’s harmonic approach at its most moving and poetic. He and Moreno voiced the slow rubato theme in flowing unison, evoking a lonely mood that contrasted with the set’s more aggressive New York moments. Hopefully it’s all a sign of more Cowherd-led projects in years to come. (DA)
Cornet specialists aren’t in huge supply, but Kirk Knuffke stands out among this unique lot for his versatility and expressive depth. He’s explored Steve Lacy’s music with Ideal Bread and the Lennie Tristano legacy with Ted Brown. He’s offered a compelling take on the repertoire of Monk, Ellington and Mingus in duets with pianist Jesse Stacken. His sideman work with Matt Wilson, Jon Irabagon and others is vigorous and surefooted. Chorale, Knuffke’s fourth outing as a leader, finds him in a brilliant lineup with pianist Russ Lossing, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Billy Hart. It’s striking that the nine original pieces all have one-word titles save for the closing “Good Good,” which playfully shifts from uptempo to half-time swing.
Striving for a balance of the written and the freely improvised, Knuffke opens with the former, a plaintive rubato invention called “Wingy.” Hart’s drumming is identifiable within the first minute and its appeal only grows from there, giving more tempo-based pieces such as “Kettle,” “Standing” and “School” a sense of dynamic flux and timbral oddity.
“Madly” revives the hovering feel of the opener but in a much freer context; it’s the longest piece of the set, moving through passages of near silence and ending with Lossing’s fiery unaccompanied piano. The transition from there to “Match” is pretty magical: Lossing is out for the first two minutes while Formanek states a steady bass line and Hart plays hypnotic tom-toms, moving to more jazz-like sticks and cymbals the very moment the piano comes in.
The blend of cornet, bowed bass and piano on the title track does in fact suggest a chorale. This bit of lyrical and offbeat chamber-jazz, rather unlike the album’s other material, yields to free rubato interplay and yet somehow preserves the feeling and direction of the opening statement. It’s the strongest evidence of the band’s profound intuitive connection.