LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT Gerald Cleaver: Percussion for the Future By Philip Freeman · October 12, 2022

Gerald Cleaver has been one of the most forward-looking drummers in jazz for over 20 years. Born in Detroit in 1963 to a father from Ohio (via Kentucky) and a mother from Mississippi, he was the youngest of seven children. He grew up listening to a vast range of music, absorbed not just from older brothers and cousins but from the Motor City’s legendarily open musical culture, which also inspired techno pioneers like Derrick May, Juan Atkins, Robert Hood, Jeff Mills, and Kevin Saunderson. “Maybe in certain parts of the country it was like this too, but Detroit, it was easy to just be free-form,” he says. “Like the free-form radio station was going strong, WABX; I remember the call letters, where you could hear anything, you’d hear someone like Pharaoh [Sanders] [or] Sid Vicious, and Black folks listened to a lot of stuff. It wasn’t so segmented like it is now…It was a real mixing, like a cauldron of things.”

That mixing has manifested itself in Cleaver’s own playing for the entire course of his career. He’s long had a reputation as a person as comfortable with free jazz as with swinging hard bop, having worked with players ranging from trumpeter Jeremy Pelt to ultra-out saxophonist Charles Gayle, as well as Roscoe Mitchell, Wadada Leo Smith, William Parker, Tomasz Stańko, guitarist Joe Morris, and pianist Matthew Shipp. But he doesn’t see the two things as separate: “I hate that that dichotomy was made, and always has been, with my career, like ‘Oh, he can swing and play free.’ It’s all the same thing. It’s not two things.”

In fact, Cleaver’s music covers a much broader range than even that list of collaborators might indicate. His short-lived band Black Host was a unique blend of avant-garde jazz, spiky noise-rock, precisely deployed production techniques (Cleaver was credited with sound design as well as percussion), and science fiction synths. In 2020, he made 27 Licks, an album of drum duos with Devin Gray: their first studio encounter, though they’d been playing this way, off and on, since 2011. And in the last few years, he’s made a sharp left turn into electronic music, releasing two albums—with a third on the way—of abstract post-techno that’s more hypnotizing than it is dancefloor-forward, even when the beat is a pounding 4/4.

That’s one of the greatest things about Cleaver’s music: he can seemingly do anything, and make it work. In the liner notes to the new album Universal Tonality, William Parker describes him as being “well-versed in the sound of Gerald Cleaver.” When asked what the sound of Gerald Cleaver is, the drummer just laughs. “I’m not gonna make it that easy,” he says. “You’ve gotta figure that out.” Any of the more than a dozen records discussed below will provide a clue, or an entry point.

Charles Gayle 3
Precious Soul

Before he’d recorded anything on his own, Cleaver was a member of free jazz saxophonist Charles Gayle’s trio. This album was recorded live at the Total Music Meeting in Berlin in November 1997, and begins with the 33-minute “Delight.” Cleaver remembers Gayle as “very clever and super sharp…What I remember is him being very, very encouraging, because he was the first person who told people about me in New York, even before I lived in New York, when I was still in Detroit.”

Angelika Niescier
New York Trio

Although this album is called New York Trio, it features a quartet: alto saxophonist Angelika Niescier, bassist Christopher Tordini, Cleaver, and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson. This may seem like a sideman gig to outsiders, but that’s not how Cleaver sees it. “Jeremy Pelt’s quintet, I call that being a sideman, or Charles Lloyd, that’s being a sideman, but with Charles Gayle and with Angelika Niescier it’s like full partner. She was just completely open to whatever I wanted to do.”

Roscoe Mitchell and the Note Factory
Song For My Sister

Chris Lightcap

Tomas Fujiwara’s Triple Double

There have been several occasions on which Cleaver has been called upon to play with a second drummer. In Roscoe Mitchell’s Note Factory, he was paired with Vincent Davis (Davis is in the left speaker, Cleaver in the right). When bassist Chris Lightcap combined his two bands, Superette and Bigmouth, into SuperBigmouth, Cleaver was teamed up with Dan Rieser.

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And in Tomas Fujiwara’s Triple Double, he’s the leader’s partner. He rejects the idea that there’s any difficulty in finding one’s way through this kind of musical environment or staying out of the other drummer’s way.

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“With another great drummer, there are no challenges. It’s just like playing with any other instrument, you know? People misconstrue drums—they don’t hear touch, all they hear is noise,” he says. “So they think, oh, two snares cancel each other out. No, it’s not like that. Two horn players don’t cancel [each other] out, so it’s just like a normal playing situation, and the communication just happens to be in those frequencies with those instruments. That’s how I think about that.”

Farmers by Nature
Farmers by Nature

Cleaver has been working with William Parker for more than 20 years. “William is a prime inspiration in my life; he’s just one of those people, like Roscoe or Henry Threadgill,” he says. “Henry’s there, Charles Gayle is there, Tomasz Stańko is there, major people in my life.” They’ve played together in all sorts of contexts; this, and the three releases below, barely scratch the surface. Farmers By Nature is a fully collaborative, improvising trio featuring Craig Taborn on piano that’s made two live albums and one studio disc, beginning with this self-titled release taped at John Zorn’s downtown NYC performance space The Stone. “Interestingly, Craig and William hadn’t played together [before]—that was the first instance of them being on record together,” he says. Cleaver had known the pianist since college, though, so he was the fulcrum in a way, bringing the other two men together: “It’s nice to say that you have a relationship with a person both personal and musical for a long, long, long time. So whatever happens with those kinds of relationships is what happened on that record—we went into the Stone and started playing, basically, and that was it.”

Daniel Carter, Matthew Shipp, William Parker, Gerald Cleaver
Welcome Adventure! Vol. 1

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Cleaver, Parker, Matthew Shipp, and saxophonist Daniel Carter (who also plays trumpet and flute) recently recorded two albums’ worth of in-the-moment improvisation for Carter’s 577 label. “Daniel makes real deep music, and I’m just happy to be able to do anything with him,” Cleaver says. “Over the course of my years in New York, I’d be very happy for him to call me for anything, and it didn’t matter what he played, what instrument he picked up, it always was very, very musical, very considered, and super deep. He doesn’t play a lot of notes, and doesn’t have to, because what he plays is conveyed, and is real light at the same time—it makes you feel good, you know?”

William Parker
Mayan Space Station

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This album marked the debut of another new ensemble—a trio featuring Parker, Cleaver, and electric guitarist Ava Mendoza. The drummer lays down a swinging, almost rock ‘n’ roll backbeat as Mendoza takes off into Sonny Sharrock-esque flight. “Just like I said about playing with [another] drummer, we started playing and that’s what came out,” Cleaver says. “It just went there…Spiritual is too warm and fuzzy a word, but intentionally, we’re trying to make the music what it’s supposed to be, which is way bigger than any of us. You always hear in a clichéd way, ‘Oh, we’re just the vessels’—yeah, it’s true.”

William Parker
Universal Tonality

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For this 2002 concert, Parker put together a 16-member ensemble that included six horns, two violins, koto, komungo, guitar, piano, and vocals, and while Cleaver was the only drummer, he was flanked by two other percussionists, Roger Blank and Jerome Cooper, both playing balafons. “I remember being welcomed,” he says. “Because I moved back to New York in 2002, and William was always very supportive, so being in that situation felt real natural. Even though [trombonist] Grachan Moncur III and Jerome Cooper [were there], these greats, they were all real cool, just cool. No attitudes or anything.”

Black Host
Life in the Sugar Candle Mines

Brandon Seabrook

In 2013, Cleaver put together the band Black Host with alto saxophonist Darius Jones, guitarist Brandon Seabrook, multi-instrumentalist (and instrument builder) Cooper-Moore, and bassist Pascal Niggenkemper. “Cooper-Moore is the heart and soul of Black Host,” he says. “He’s so powerful in and of himself, no matter whether he’s singing or playing fife or diddley-bow—whatever he’s playing is coming from such a deep place, and a place of joy and heavy life, you know?”

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After the album came out, Niggenkemper departed for France, and Jones moved on to his own projects, but the remaining three—Cleaver, Seabrook, and Cooper-Moore—reunited as a trio and have made two albums to date. “That’s a working band,” says Cleaver. “Which I’m very happy about, because any situation I can play in with Cooper-Moore is a good situation.”

Fred Moten/Brandon Lopez/Gerald Cleaver

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This year, Cleaver released a fascinating three-way collaboration with bassist Brandon Lopez and poet/critic/thinker Fred Moten, a collision of avant-garde jazz and language-besotted poetry. “We play and it’s almost turning into a performing arts type of ensemble, because the types of things that Fred talks about are almost impossible to not react to,” Cleaver says. “The things he talks about are super heavy, and his critiques of everything we know as culture are very biting, like the discussion about the inequalities that will never go away, and the injustices that will never be made right. He’s a master poet, and a great critical thinker, so being in that situation is real inspirational because of the images that he conjures up in my mind that I can play off of.”

Gerald Cleaver

In 2020, Cleaver surprised everyone with the release of Signs, an entirely electronic album. The following year, he continued this journey with Griots, which included tracks dedicated to Cooper-Moore, fellow drummer Victor Lewis, the late pianist Geri Allen, William Parker, and Faruq Z. Bey, and featured guest appearances from keyboardist David Virelles and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire nestled among the humming synths and ticking rhythms.

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A third record is currently in the works. “Well, starting maybe around 2012 or so, I felt the need to learn how the electronic side of things worked, just because it was a challenge, being a drummer and not having to do any of that—never had to plug one thing in, you know?” he says. His wife, vocalist Jean Carla Rodea, gave him a crucial tip: “Thanks to my wife I discovered an open source modular synth emulation called VCV Rack. So that really changed things—I learned how to use a modular synthesizer, and that’s what Signs was. And I also used it greatly on Griots, but I also got a synth, a piece of hardware that I used as well. But it just came out of me trying to get over certain kinds of fears, like thinking I could never do electronics, or I could never do this, or I could never do that. Just facing my fears or my insecurities. That’s all that was, me realizing, ‘Oh, I have to do this in order to not feel like I can’t do it.’ And those two records are what came out of it.”

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