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Gerald Cleaver - Be It as I See It (2011)

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By S. Victor Aaron

Gerald Cleaver, along with Nasheet Waits, seems to always be the drummer on some really outstanding jazz records of late. Michael Formanek's The Rub And Spare Change required virtuosic musicians playing at peak level to make it work, and Cleaver did his part and then some, helping to compel me to make this my Mainstream and Modern Jazz Album of 2010. You can add to that his work with other major artists like Roscoe Mitchell, David Torn, Wadada Leo Smith, William Parker, Miroslav Vitous, Henry Threadgill and countless other notable jazz figures. At 47 years old, Cleaver has long established himself in the music scenes of both NYC and his native Detroit, but not just as a sideman. He's led a few recording dates since 2001's Adjust and tomorrow, his third (fourth if you count 2009's Farmers By Nature co-led with William Parker and Craig Taborn) goes on sale.

The new one, entitled Be It As I See It, is themed on the great migration of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North in the mid-20th century. It's done from Cleaver own perspective, whose mother moved up to Detroit with her parents, while Cleaver's father arrived in the Motor City to work for Ford. It's full of music that ranges wildly in mood and form, with some poetry that gives the recording something of a picturesque feel, it's a sprawling, avant-jazz opera.

Over the course of twelve tracks all composed by Cleaver, he leads his Uncle June band through a journey full of unexpected turns and traversing over a lot of musical territory. The vision of the leader keeps things in focus, though. Uncle June, by the way, has one hell of a lineup. Joing Cleaver and his drums are his old college colleague Craig Taborn on keyboards, Tony Malaby and Andrew Bishop on reeds, Drew Gress on bass, and Mat Maneri on viola. Other guest musicians help out on a handful of tracks, most notably Cleaver's dad John (the real “Uncle June"), who recited the poetry on “He Said."

The album opens with the explosive rock-jazz “To Love" with an almost defiant declaration of love the culminates into the song detonating and the scattering out into every direction. Contrast that to the closing track “From The Life Of The Name," a gorgeous, mysterious and blue melody performed with care by Maneri, Taborn, Malaby and Bishop on bass clarinet. In it Gress contributes an achingly singing bass solo that is evocative of the lyricism of Eberhard Weber.

The stuff in between is not much less ambitious. After the chamber music of “Charles Street Sunrise," the five-part “Fence and Post (For Mom and Dad)" suite commences. The suite itself moves through many different areas of music, classical, avant-garde and jazz, with the distinctions often blurred: Taborn supplies wired squeaks and chirps set against the restless bass and viola on “The Lights," while raining down notes on a tasteful solo on the modern jazz of “Ruby Ritchie/Well." The standout section might be “Statues/UmbRa," an urbane piece based on a piano ostinato that mutates into a tension from the competing forces of Malaby and Bishop stating a charted chord progression, while Taborn and Cleaver and a fuzz guitar growl freely underneath. “Gremmy" and “Charles Street Quotidian" again blends chamber music led by Maneri, Malaby and Bishop with the improvised music leanings of Gress and Taborn. “22 Minutes (The Wedding Song)" isn't nearly that long, but the addition of a banjo and female vocal singing lyric-less alongside Maneri's viola treads in the same dowdy, somber territory as Howard Wiley's Angola Project.

Be It As I See It is an album that isn't going to be appealing to a lot of people from start to finish—-it gets a little dense in spots—-but contains a lot of high points and the music is consistently interesting and well conceived. As a tribute to his mother, father and grandparents, Cleaver dug deep into his muse and made a record that surely made the Cleaver clan proud.

Be It As I See It is another fine jazz offering by Fresh Sound New Talent Records.

Purchase: Gerald Cleaver—Be It As I See It

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