Gerald Cleaver: Downtown's Hardest Working Drummer

Tom Greenland By

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Ralph Alessi & Modular Theater
Open Season
RKM Music

Gebhard Ullmann's Basement Research
Don't Touch My Music
Not Two

Yaron Herman Trio
Laborie Records

Raphal Imbert
New_York Project
Zig-Zag Territoires

Gerald Cleaver, one of the hardest working drummers on the scene, is a consummate accompanist comfortable in eclectic settings; in addition to his own dates, he has recently collaborated with a variety of downtown and international artists.

Open Theater, New York trumpeter Ralph Alessi's second Modular Theater release, explores the nexus of spoken word and instrumental improvisation, with Will Jennings (vocals), Peter Epstein (alto and tenor saxophones), Ben Street and Mark Helias (bass) and Mark Ferber and Cleaver (drums). Alessi's music, always intellectually rigorous, is leavened with attractive compositions, open-ended forms that blur the boundary between 'soloist' and 'accompanist' and nonidiomatic rhythmic and intervallic approaches. Jennings' raps (written by Alessi), address random minutiae: Cabalism, numerology, the Koran, covert video footage, misinformation, zephyrs, fish and words; elsewhere he scats gibberish or paints with sound, mingling his voice with the horns. John Coltrane's grandson William is heard on "Foxhole," a short tone poem of welcome innocence. Epstein is a major contributor here, joining Alessi for tandem turns throughout. Cleaver rocks the pulse on "Foxhole," floats over the beat in an active but understated manner on "Slow Freefall," adds malleted tom-toms to "Tranesonic's" 5/4 groove and funks up "Connecting Dots Pt. 2."

Don't Touch My Music documents a live performance by German Gebhard Ullmann's Basement Research at Alchemia in Krakow, Poland with the current lineup of hornmen Julian Argelles (baritone and soprano saxophones) and Steve Swell (trombone), plus John Hébert (bass) and Cleaver. Ullmann's writing provides just enough formal constraint to control the chaos, with horn comps, occasional chorale textures and contrapuntal head figures that sound improvised. The opening Bb blues highlights Swell's burred, buzzy tone, plunger-mute growls and siren wails, backed by Cleaver's militaristic snare. "Klein Figuren No. 1," based on a 4+4+4+3 beat structure, generates slightly off-kilter phrases; Cleaver 'combusts' spontaneously over the bass riff with an elastic pulse that alternately pushes and pulls, heavy backbeats mixed with conversational interpolations. "New No Ness" builds from Hébert's subtle, exploratory opening, complemented by Cleaver's light mallets, to a full-skronk three-horn tempest, muting intensity finally to reveal a bubbling 6/4 groove with interlocking horn riffs. "Kreuzberg Park East" is an exercise in musical pointillism, baritone sax, bass clarinet and trombone each interjecting terse hits to create a seamless yet open-ended effect, segueing into a series of sections of varying tone and texture. The title track's rubato intro, each instrument introducing slight tonal modifications, slowly erupts into interlocking riffs, each going its separate but equal way, all pinned down by a five-beat pulse, leaving the coda to Cleaver's reverberant snare and soft-pedaled bass drum.

Muse, Israeli pianist Yaron Herman's second trio release with Cleaver and Matt Brewer (bass), mixes original compositions with covers. Bookending the album are tracks fleshed out with a string quartet, adding lush backdrop and light counterpoint to create dreamy moodscapes; the strings are also used to fine effect on a cover of Bjrk's "Isobel." Herman is adept at blending jazz and classical (and a hint of Middle Eastern) traditions, ordering his rhythmic and tonal materials even as he finds freedom within them. Cleaver is especially effective here, creating consistent forward motion within these limits, driving the groove without steering into repetitive ruts, as on "Vertigo," where he swings in 15/8 with a Monk-like lilt, or his long, flowing fills on "Lamidbar."

New_York Project is an eponymous release by French saxophonist Raphael Imbert with Cleaver and Joe Martin (bass), a collection of musical vignettes melding the leader's light, Johnny Hodges-esque lyricism with high-octane free-jazz-for-all blowing. The chordless trio format affords plenty of air-space and -time to Cleaver and Martin, who exploit their freedom with tasteful exuberance. Cleaver's percussion ranges from minimalistic, almost implied colorings to hard-hitting, extroverted interactions. On tracks like "Cloisters Sanctuary Introduction" and "The Zen Bowman: Arrow" he is felt more than heard while on "Echoes of Harlem," "My Klezmer Dream," "The Zen Bowman: Prayer" and "The Zen Bowman: Target" he is a driving force; on "Albert Everywhere" and "Struggle for Manhattan's Life" he concludes with a soliloquy. The latter features Imbert simultaneously playing alto and soprano saxophones in a folksy freeform style. A rising force, Imbert is a powerful yet refined player.

Tracks and Personnel

Open Season

Tracks: Connecting Dots; Morbid Curiosity; Good Fever; Panoramic; Video; Slow Freefall; Tranesonic; Foxhole; Conversations with a Circus Midget; Fear of Fruit; Connecting Dots Pt. 2.

Personnel: Ralph Alessi: trumpet; Peter Epstein: saxophones; Ben Street: bass; Mark Ferber: drums; Will Jennings: voice; Mark Helias: bass; Gerald Cleaver: drums; William Coltrane: voice.

Don't Touch My Music

Tracks: Das Blaue Viertel; Kleine Figuren No. I; New No Ness; Kreuzberg Park East; Don't Touch Our Music.

Personnel: Gebhard Ullman: bass clarinet & baritone sax; Julian Argelles: soprano & baritone saxophones; Steve Swell: trombone; John Hebert: bass; Gerald Cleaver: drums.


Tracks: Muse; Con Alma; Vertigo; Lamidbar; Perpetua; Isobel; Joya; Lu Yehi; Twins; And the Rain; Rina Ballé.

Personnel: Yaron Herman: piano; Matt Brewer: bass; Gerald Cleaver: drums.

New_York Project

Tracks: Echoes of Harlem; Lullaby from the Beginning; Cloisters Sanctuary Introduction; Cloisters Sanctuary; Albert Everywhere; My Klezmer Dream; Struggle for Manhattan's Life; NYC Breakdowncalling; The Zen Bowman: Prayer; The Zen Bowman: Surrender; The Zen Bowman: Target; The Zen Bowman: Arrow; Central Park West..

Personnel: Raphal Imbert: saxophones; Joe Martin: bass; Gerald Cleaver: drums.


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