Gerald Cleaver & Uncle June: Detroit Jazz Festival, September 2, 2012

Steve Bryant BY

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Gerald Cleaver & Uncle June
Detroit Jazz Festival
Detroit, MI
September 2, 2012

The 2012 Detroit Jazz Fest had one of the best lineups in years, especially for fans of the mainstream headliners. However, for those who like their music adventurous and intrepid, it wasn't that type of party. The one standout act, though, was Detroit drummer Gerald Cleaver, who was part of a crew of young guns from the Motor City who have since gone on to put their mark on the New York, and world, jazz scenes. Ever since he was at the University of Michigan, Cleaver has been creating his own musical pathways, something that has put him in good standing in New York City progressive circles.

For this date Cleaver brought his aggregation, Uncle June, to perform music from Be It As I See It (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2011), a somewhat autobiographical work which evokes the Great Migration from the South as well as personal vignettes from his childhood. Cleaver's vision is so vast and encompassing that he requires a large group of collaborators to help him express it. For this date, Cleaver brought the whole crew out; an aggregation of downtown heavy-hitters which included Andrew Bishop and Tony Malaby on reeds, Matt Maneri on viola, pianist and longtime U of M crime partner Craig Taborn, Drew Gress on bass, and Ryan MacStaller on guitar.

Cleaver started the set with "Charles Street Quotidian," a wide-sweeping tapestry of sound and color which started off with a subtle yet looming ostinato by the rhythm section, and a flourish of sound swirls by Malaby. The piece continued with an evocatively lyrical clarinet solo by Bishop as well as a thunderous infusion of sound by pianist Taborn, whose looming virtuosity has been a force to be reckoned with since he left the Motor City in the 90's.

The next tune, "Fence and Post," was a suite dedicated to Cleaver's parents John and Mary. The first movement "To Love" was one of those "downtown" pieces which blended spoken word and intense musical passages from guitarist MacStaller, whose use of the "fuzz" brought to mind Bill Frisell. The next movement featured a blistering solo by Malaby on tenor. The last movement was a salute to the Detroit bop tradition with an appropriately burning run by Malaby.

The most interesting moments came when Uncle June performed "He Said." A conceptual mix of music and word which included an exchange between the recorded voice of Cleaver's grandfather and vocalist Jean Carla Rodea. Even though Cleaver's music is challenging to the casual ear, it was the most rewarding set of the weekend and definitely appreciated by Cleaver's hometown fans.

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