Gerald Cleaver Uncle June

Be It As I See It
Fresh Sound New Talent FSNT-375

Program music that avoids the expected, drummer Gerald Cleaver’s Be It As I See It is a finely formed meditation that makes purely musical points. Although based on the Great Migration of American Blacks from the South to the North from the 1920s onwards, Detroit-born, New York-based Cleaver, whose immediate family was involved in the journey, has created a magisterial chamber work which carefully avoids clichés. There are no allusions to south-of-the Mason-Dixon agrarian nostalgia or attempts to musically recreate the gritty urban north.

Along the way, Cleaver, already known for his rhythmic sophistication playing with everyone from mainstream pianists Barry Harris and Ray Bryant to more exploratory musicians such as reedist Roscoe Mitchell and bassist William Parker, confirms his mastery as an arranger and composer. That doesn’t mean that his percussion smarts are overshadowed though. Ultimately, each of the one dozen Cleaver compositions which make up the CD-length suite, benefits from his sophisticated rhythm control which drives the narratives without ever seeming to push.

He’s also aided by top-flight accompanists. Reed duties are split between Andrew Bishop, Cleaver’s long-time Michigan associate and New York’s Tony Malaby, with key sequences illuminated by strategies from keyboardist Craig Taborn, bassist Drew Gress and violist Mat Maneri, all of whom regularly play with top New Yorkers ranging from saxophonist Tim Berne to pianist Cecil Taylor. String players Ryan Macstaller and Andy Taub are also featured, while paralando vocals and commentary arrives through words from the drummer himself, his wife Jean Carla Rodea, and his father John Cleaver, the Uncle June celebrated in the title.

Impressionistically descriptive, not literal, the drummer’s compositional strategies range from chamber-music-like textural slides, centred around the legato sophistication of Maneri’s double-stopping arco lines and Gress’s stop-time rhythmic pulses, to aleatoric themes which take their shape from idiosyncratic splutters and washes from Taborn’s electric keyboards. Spoken-word collages share space with other variations, which recall earlier Motown tropes. With string and percussion tonal shimmers coupled with lyrical soprano saxophone trills appear, it’s almost as if Norman Whitfield had some production input.

Results attain musical values much different than those on Temptations or Marvin Gaye records however. On “Ruby Ritchie/Well” for instance, iterating tenor saxophone smears coordinate with steady percussion ruffs. Both lines are framed within likely double-tracked strings decorations, which abruptly open up to key clicks and later cascading notes from the pianist, alongside measured drum dynamics and well-modulated chromatic reed bursts. Gress’s most notable contribution appears on “Gremmy”, where his walking line creates a contrapuntal challenge to Cleaver’s pace-setting nerve beats and Taborn’s pumping piano arpeggios. The resulting tempo changing presages the piano and strings subsequently defining the expansive, formalist melody.

“From A Life of the Same Name”, the final track, is a project summation, but without formulistic theme reiteration or allusions. Instead guitar strokes, double bass thumps and sympathetic piano chords confirm the track’s linear character as Bishop’s bass clarinet and Malaby’s soprano saxophone define the languid theme without being cloying. Descriptive emotionalism, which resonates to the finale, arrives via Maneri’s squeezed blues notes and Bishop’s slurred flutter-tonguing.

A first-class percussionist, Cleaver confirms with this CD that he’s a top composer and conceptualist as well.

—Ken Waxman

Track listing: 1. To Love 2. Charles Street Sunrise 3. Alluvia 4. The Lights 5. Lee/Mae 6. Statues/UmbRa 7. Ruby Ritchie/Well 8. He Said 9. Gremmy 10. Charles Street Quotidian

11. 22 Minutes (The Wedding Song) 12. From A Life of the Same Name

Personnel: Tony Malaby (soprano and tenor saxophones); Andrew Bishop (soprano and tenor saxophones, bass clarinet and flute); Craig Taborn (piano and keyboards); Mat Maneri (viola); Ryan MacStaller (guitar); Andy Taub (banjo); Drew Gress (bass); Gerald Cleaver (drums, percussion and voice) and Jean Carla Rodea, John Cleaver (voices)