Gerald Cleaver: Surrendering to the Experience

Troy Collins

Black Host                                                                                                  ©Mario Tahi Lathan 2013

New York-based drummer Gerald Cleaver practically defines the term ubiquitous. In the past decade Cleaver has been a frequent cohort of renowned avant-gardists like Roscoe Mitchell and Matthew Shipp, as well as mainstream artists like Jeremy Pelt and Rodney Whitaker; he has simultaneously maintained longstanding memberships in a number of forward-thinking ensembles, including the collective trio Farmers By Nature (with William Parker and Craig Taborn), Michael Formanek’s Quartet, and Taborn’s Trio, among others. His pan-stylistic virtuosity and exceptional sensitivity to dynamics have made him an in-demand session player in any number of settings – an adaptive quality that similarly informs his inclusive compositional sensibility. Organically integrating a wide range of genre-specific tenets into a uniquely cohesive approach, Cleaver’s arrangements espouse the same aesthetic inclinations as his refined drumming technique, balancing sonic extremes with tasteful restraint.

Black Host is his most recent and expansive endeavor. The quintet features a multi-generational cross-section of talent; led by Cleaver from the drum chair, the group includes rising alto saxophonist Darius Jones, veteran pianist Cooper-Moore, inventive guitarist Brandon Seabrook and Cologne-born contrabassist Pascal Niggenkemper. Life in the Sugar Candle Mines, the band’s recording debut, offers a salient encapsulation of Cleaver’s eclectic interests. As Cleaver himself eloquently stated, “I just wanted to capture a sound that reflects all my loves at the present moment: the activity and excitement generated in static sound and extreme dynamics, melodicism within heavy texture, deep-rooted groove, unchained abandon and the power and revelation of recurring form.”

The reverb-drenched set offers a heady mix of electro-acoustic tonalities; the quintet’s impassioned efforts are enshrouded in a haze of enigmatic samples, adding layers of sonic intrigue to Cleaver’s multihued compositions. Deriving inspiration from the leader’s bittersweet melodies, Jones and Cooper-Moore share a rhapsodic rapport that can be traced back to their fervent trio excursions with drummer Rakalam Bob Moses, while Seabrook’s phantasmagoric extrapolations are ably underscored by Niggenkemper’s robust foundation. Despite his leadership status, Cleaver plays a fairly magnanimous role, underpinning the proceedings with driving rhythms and percussive colorings devoid of pyrotechnic excess.

Bolstered by his sidemen’s masterful interpretations, Cleaver’s memorable tunes elicit an array of evocative moods; the scorching interplay between Jones’ multiphonic alto and Seabrook’s efx-laden fretwork on the anthemic opener “Hover” imbues the number’s rousing theme with a modernistic patina, while Cooper-Moore’s cascading runs throughout “Ayler Children” recall the ecstatic zeal of the New Thing, inspiring one of Seabrook’s most breathtakingly unhinged solos. Whether navigating the brooding lyricism of “Citizen Rose” or the maniacal fervency of “Test-Sunday,” Black Host brings Cleaver’s writing to life with compelling conviction. Intrigued by this bold project, I interviewed Cleaver in the summer of 2013.


Troy Collins: Your credits as a sideman are quite extensive, ranging from work with celebrated avant-gardists to more mainstream artists. Yet your own bands and recording projects seem to encapsulate all of your interests simultaneously, reinforcing the diversity of your discography, with Black Host being the most current example. How did the quintet come into being?

Gerald Cleaver: I saw Cooper-Moore perform at Vision Fest XVI (2011) with William Parker and Muhammed Ali. It was supposed to be Planetary Unknown with David S. Ware, but David was too ill to play. It was auspicious not because I’d never seen those guys – I’ve been around them for some years now – but because they formed this deep bond, went to a deep place that night with the music. As an aside, as a drummer, the thing I love about Muhammed’s playing is his obvious connection to the tradition; coming from Detroit, I relate to the Philly jazz thing. The whole show was very inspiring. I saw Stephen Joerg at the break after that show and told him I had a new idea for a band that needed to have that type of energy, to come from that place, hoping Cooper-Moore would assent to being a part of this as yet defined, band. Fortunately, Cooper-Moore said yes. I thought about it for a while and came up with Brandon, Darius and Pascal. I felt in them the ability to take the sound to the place I was hearing.

TC: What is the significance of the band name, Black Host?

GC: It can mean a lot of things. First of all, it’s a sound, those two words put together. I like to relate to the unconscious as well as to the conscious, logical mind as much as possible – to allow it its proper place. Some things can be stated as a power for some kind of change without having to know the reasons why. Not trying to be morbid, but I’m interested in experiencing life’s unpredictability. Why fight it? It’s going to happen, anyway. It’s an overwhelming and beautiful experience.

TC: Few people are comfortable enough with death to refer to it as a “beautiful experience.”

GC: Death itself has nothing to do with the formation of Black Host. It’s a cycle: it has to be completed. It’s not so much that I think of death as a beautiful experience: it’s terribly painful to lose friends and loved ones. What I meant is to have the desire to be open to all of life’s experiences and to be willing to witness how those experiences alter your mind and consciousness. Death is maybe the most powerful example. I accept that I am drowning in my life experiences: life is way bigger than me. I surrender. Sounds like I might be contradicting myself with what I’m about to say, but for me, surrendering takes away the “good” or the “bad” from the experience. Then it just is. Somehow that makes it beautiful for me.

TC: The ensemble offers an impressive mix of personalities, from Darius Jones’ ardent alto and Cooper-Moore’s flinty pianism to Brandon Seabrook’s experimental guitar musings and Pascal Niggenkemper’s plaint bass work. How do personal and stylistic dynamics shape the inner workings of the group?

GC: Most definitely. The reason I asked these specific people is because they’re so themselves. But it’s less the stylistic chips they bring to the table. (Poker analogy: strong players bring more chips to the table.) Even though I conceived of a certain hard rock, metal heaviness to the band, I could’ve done it without the requisite guitar. I leave Brandon’s name out of that explanation because, though Brandon is playing the guitar, it’s music that’s really happening, get what I mean? Lotte Anker, Craig Taborn and I have gone into some really unexpected places as a bass-less tenor trio. I like that these guys bring a very unique personality to the music.

TC: As the primary writer, were any of the tunes on Life in the Sugar Candle Mines composed specifically for these particular musicians, or were they more skeletal in conception?

GC: Both. “Hover” is from my very first record as a leader; “Citizen Rose” was written for this band; “Wrestling” is a Bartok piece I’ve always loved; “Test-Sunday” and “Gromek” are new ones for the band, as well.

TC: Your composing for the group incorporates a wide spectrum of electro-acoustic tone colors and historically-informed genre tenets, from spirituals to Eastern European folk music. How do you balance the idiomatic differences native to each specific style in your multifaceted compositions?

GC: As I stated above about my bandmates, I honestly don’t think about style or idiom. The thing I wanted to connect to was that deep, deep place Cooper-Moore, William and Muhammed demonstrated. That’s my idea of a full experience of life itself – people honestly interacting. It’s always been the same – the inspiration of something way deeper than the sonic events happening. It’s like a very clear, inaudible communication. So naturally, living in this city (for that matter, living in this world), you’ll be touched and inspired unconsciously by so many diverse elements.

TC: The album has a strong cinematic feel, ranging from the ethereal “Citizen Rose” and atmospheric “Amsterdam/Frames” to the harrowingly severe “Gromek,” which shares its title with the infamous villain in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1966 noir classic Torn Curtain. Considering these touchstones, is film an influence in your writing?

GC: Yes, I absolutely love the concept of sound with a picture – moving or still. It’s an incredibly subjective experience, one that is like a luxury in our experience of us in our environment. I’m speaking about the difference in a certain objective reporting of facts. Take, for instance, journalism. My idea of that is that the facts are supposed to be presented clearly and without bias. Of course that ain’t happening. Musical commentary for images gladly takes us exactly where the artists want you to go, and we, the audience, are happy to release ourselves to that fantasy.

TC: So I take it that “Gromek” is a direct reference to Hitchcock’s film then?

GC: Torn Curtain is one of my favorite Hitchcock films. I love that Gromek lived in Manhattan (as an undercover agent) for a time, and that he knows, loves and hates America in general, and New York in particular. Feels current, informs me of possible immigrant thought in that time and our time.

TC: There is a distinctive “wall-of-sound” approach to Black Host’s debut recording that is undeniably unique. Aside from Seabrook’s battery of efx pedals and Cooper-Moore’s ghostly synth washes, you’re credited with “sound design” in the liner notes; what exactly does that entail?

GC: I did pre-production sound design on my computer for “Ayler Children,” “Amsterdam / Frames” and “Gromek.” I did post-production work in the studio on “Test-Sunday,” “Wrestling” and “May Be Home,” and David Torn applied his special sauce in mastering. I like that it’s not noticeable, that it doesn’t call attention to itself. The band is five guys who love to manipulate sound. We’re all doing those very things on our instruments – the computer and the studio were used as similar tools.

TC: The rapturous “Ayler Children” re-envisions Albert Ayler’s impassioned aesthetic as a bustling contrapuntal dirge, without ever sounding like pastiche or simple homage. Do you feel an aesthetic affinity with Ayler and his New Thing-era brethren?

GC: The song is more about freedom and multilateralness than about Albert Ayler. One of my direct shows of respect goes to Max Roach. I referenced the rhythms of the great intro to “Garvey’s Ghost,” took it to an expanded sound that would serve as a frame for everything that transpires afterwards in “Ayler Children.” I appreciate all the free-thinking predecessors we have. I am grateful for their questing.

TC: How do you feel about studio recording compared to live performance and how does that affect your playing in each situation.

GC: I’ve gotten used to studio recording. I used to hate it. I couldn’t get with that “perfect” sound.  That’s not how I’m used to hearing the drums, or band.  It’s really more of a skill to be able to block out a type of registering, self-feedback that can wipe me out. I can now just go into a certain place, distance myself from the tyranny of perfect sound. I enjoy it a lot more now than ever. Plus, the studio is the extra instrument.

TC: What are your thoughts on the state of the recording industry at large, especially in regards to archival hard copies versus ephemeral downloads?

GC: I am glad the controlling aspects of the industry have all but gone away. I’m happy to see it possible for anyone to create exactly what they want. Of course I’m sad to witness the demise of record stores. I’m sure we both spent hours upon hours in stores, making some amazing discoveries. It still happens for me online. But I miss the social aspect.

TC: In a similar vein, I’m intrigued by the deceptive simplicity of the album cover; although it is actually a series of jagged light trails produced by an open shutter, on first glance it appears to be a picture of an exploding volcano, complete with rivulets of flowing lava – which certainly conveys the intense vibe of the record, in either case. Since all of the abstract imagery included in the release was shot by you, I’m curious what role photography plays in your work?

GC: Well, as I said in relation to music with image, it’s my luxury to be able to present both and hear how it touches you. Honestly, not trying to avoid the question, but in a way, I hear you already answering that question. I definitely don’t pretend to be an “Artiste,” but the real answer is, how does it affect the viewer?

TC: In light of the recording industry’s current complexities, do you find musical inspiration in any technological advances, stylistic movements or particular artists?

GC: Well, I have some feelings about that but would rather not list people. I’m honestly happy to be a part of a large circle of individuals whose work hits me, inspires me. And I’m happy to see younger folks popping up all time. I’m very optimistic about the future.

TC: What projects do you have planned for the future?

GC: There’s a third Farmers By Nature release planned for 2014 with AUM Fidelity. I’m planning a follow-up Black Host recording for Northern Spy. I also will produce the second record for Uncle June when the time is right. That’s in the near, not distant, future. I have a spark of an idea involving voice and guitar; I will leave that at that since I haven’t asked all interested parties, yet. All of these bands are so personal: I am learning about myself and the world around me through them.

© 2013 Troy Collins

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