Gerald Cleaver, Tapping the Electronic Well

Gerald CleaverSigns (577 Records, 2020)

Drummer Gerald Cleaver is ubiquitous as a sideman, but lately I’ve been exploring more of his work as a leader, where he shows off solid compositional skills and a flair for diverse ideas. With Black Host, he took free jazz to expansive, aggressive heights with Brandon Seabrook on guitar. His band Violet Hour covers more conventional post-bop territory with an exciting energy. And he has always popped up as a co-leader on various improvised sessions, such as the recent trio with Larry Ochs and Nels Cline, titled What Is To Be Done (Clean Feed, 2019).

Signs is different, an album of electronics built from overdubbed beats and tones: a drifting, floating sound anchored by polyrhythms crafted from percussive sounds or small synthesizer riffs. Many of the melodic lines sound like (or possibly are) old analog electronics. Modern beatmaking sounds don’t dominate; there’s a pleasantly chill tapping sound behind “Jackie’s Smiles,” the relaxed opening track, but a more characteristic palette can be found on “Blown,” a 9-minute mini-epic that builds slowly and moves through a few different voices as it gains momentum.

I like that Cleaver stepped away from his usual haunts to try this album, and I’m also just enjoying his choices of sounds, from dry rustles to melodic tones and the occasional lingering chord. The slow-moving bonus track “Day Red” feels like a nod to the 1950s pioneers of electronic music. And speaking of those old-school synth sounds, I like the random burbling on “Signs I,” the opener of a three-part trilogy:

Cleaver is continuing this direction with Griots, and album dedicated to some of his major musical influences, including fellow Detroit native Faruq Z. Bey. Produced during the early days of the pandemic, the album draws its inspiration from the strength of community. Meanwhile, a remixed version of Signs will be coming out on Positive Elevation (an imprint of 577 Records) in June.

Cleveland 1968

Black Unity TrioAl-Fatihah (Gotta Groove, 2020; orig. release 1969)

The first recording that cellist/bassist Abdul Wadud ever appeared on, and a prized relic of a brief, bright Cleveland free-jazz scene, is back on vinyl. Recorded on Christmas Eve, 1968, it was the product of a band led by Joseph Phillips (now Yusef Mumin), who owned Cosmic Music Records in Cleveland. The original album was printed by the band themselves, in a day when DIY releases were unheard of, and those 500 copies are now collectors’ items.

Gotta Groove used the original master tapes to produce a labor-of-love reissue. Al-Fatihah is a potent dose of spiritual jazz, created with John Coltrane’s death still an overhanging memory. The album sets meditative moods alongside ecstatic, roiling music. It’s an exciting document of its time and holds up against the best of what 1968 left for us to discover.

The dense liner notes include an essay from musician Ras Moshe Burnett and detailed biographical sketches explaining how the recording came about, how Black Unity Trio (originally Quartet) assembled, and — before any of that — how each member connected to the free jazz world during this brief, critical period. Mumin’s family knew the Aylers; Wadud was mentored by Phillips and connected with Julius Hemphill while studying at Oberlin. Drummer Haasan Al-hut (now Hassan Abdur Shahid) grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, where his father was a professional saxophonist and a high-school friend of Herman “Sonny” Blount, as explained in Al-hut’s interview with The Wire.

Together, they were part of a free-jazz scene that briefly thrived in Cleveland — turns out Bobby Few and Frank Wright came from there — and the Midwest in general. (I unknowingly got a glimpse of this history — or its descendants, anyway — when Rent Romus’ Edgetone Records released the Rejuvenation Trio’s Rejuvenation Voyage (2010), a modern recording featuring Cleveland’s Hasan Abdul-Razzaq.)

Al-Fatihah opens slowly with the ritual-sounding percussion and cello of “Birth, Life and Death,” but soon enough bursts into a dark ecstasy, with the slight reverb on Mumin’s alto sax creating a ghostly effect, especially when coupled with Wadud’s wailing cello.

The centerpiece, on Side Two, is “John’s Vision,” a title doubly referencing the Bible and Coltrane. It opens with a furious cello declaration, a statement of confidence from 21-year-old Wadud, and quickly dives deep. Against the ball-lightning energy of Al-hut’s drumming, Mumin uses Middle Eastern scales to create an atmosphere of spiritual energy before launching into furious soloing.

They’re chasing the spirit of Trane, but consider also this: In Buddhist funeral and memorial ceremonies, as I understand it, the banging of a large bell or metal bowl is meant to awaken the spirits of the dead, so they may join and inform the gathering. As this music is released back to the world, my ears are hearing its cries call the spirits of the jazz masters, some long passed, some recently passed. And a few more of their stories live a little longer.

Raven Chacon’s Radio Coyote: Through June 30

From “A Very Long Line” by Postcommodity, an art collective that includes Raven Chacon.

As a DJ, I reveled in playing obscure, forgotten tracks from the KZSU library: records from the vinyl collection, or CDs that had gone unplayed for 10 years. I’m sure listeners didn’t notice the difference, but I enjoyed the thrill of discovery, and when I gave air time to those discs, it felt like I was adding good to the world.

Cut to Albuquerque, current home of Raven Chacon, who for 20 years has been releasing limited-edition recordings on his SickSickSick Distro label. We’re talking 50 or 100 copies, and they do sell out, vanishing into the ether.

Now they’re getting air time. The 73-album catalogue is part of the menu for Radio Coyote, a sort of art project produced by the California College of the Arts’ Wattis Institute. It’s a literal radio broadcast — 88.1FM in San Francisco — and webstream, 24 hours a day from April 1 to June 30. has been doing its online radio feed for years now, so it’s not as if Coyote Radio is your only chance to hear experimental noise and the like. But I enjoy the fact that the SickSickSick catalogue is part of what’s on offer — another chance at life for those out-of-print recordings. A “temporary archive,” as Chacon explained to I Care If You Listen, like a aural museum exhibit that rolls past while you sit still. Also on the bill are guests — podcasters and other musicians from the Southwest or the Bay Area — and stretches of free-form programming.

I found out about this early in May and finally gave it a go on May 13. As it happens, SickSickSick specializes in experimental sounds but also brutally loud metal (one blurb boasts that the vinyl record is pressed so loudly, your needle will skip), which isn’t really my thing. But I first caught Radio Coyote during a span of noise and sound collages — pleasant strolls through alternative mindspaces.

Lobsterbreath (SickSickSick #34) flipped styles from one track to the next — old Italian pop, low-key noise, a string section for the track called “Credits.” I wonder if it was all found-sound. The Late Severa Wires (SickSickSick #39, recorded live on KFJC!) was more conventionally noise-based, with sounds generated from guitars and drums, possibly a laptop in there too.

Black Drink (SickSickSick #40), created by the trio of Barbara and Tom Hohmann and Chacon himself, combined acoustic and electric sounds (including a guitar and possibly homemade drums) with samples and found recordings.

Radio Coyote is not a full 24/7 broadcast; a few hours’ worth of programming gets repeated throughout the day, interspersed by those free form segments (which might be repeated as well, come to think of it). It was a good couple of hours of listening for me, though, and I’ll be back. I love that this is happening and that these sounds are existing out on the physical airwaves. But after that session, I did flip over to radio and its fully 24/7 stream.

Radio Coyote broadcasts through June 30: or 88.1FM in San Francisco.

Ramon & Jessica

Ramon & JessicaSing Along With Ramon & Jessica (self-released, 2021)

In the end, this may go down as the least avant-garde album on this blog, and that’s even without considering it’s a children’s album. Ramon & Jessica have performed music like this for a couple of decades, but this is their first album made overtly for kids — no swear words, no titles like their early track “Fucker,” no political shade as in “Beginning of the End of the Empire.” You remember how They Might Be Giants took the thing they were already doing, removed the morbid overhang, and made it into kids’ music? It’s like that.

Ramon & Jessica are Dina Maccabee (vocals, violin, melodica) and Jesse Olsen Bay (vocals, guitar, ukelele, bass, and plenty more), performing richly harmonized folk music as a duo, with guests such as Marié Abe on accordion and Jimmy Horn on banjo. I’d seen them on Bay Area music listings over the years but never managed to catch them live. Now they live on different coasts and continue to collaborate, regardless of pandemics and wildfires — seriously; a 2019 recording session for Sing Along had to contend with wildfire smoke.

“When the Firetruck Goes By” is a happy and innocent song with a nifty crinkle in its chord progression. “Doggy in the Diner” is a fast-paced minor-key song with touches of Parisian cafe, making nice dramatic use of Maccabee’s violin.

The connection to this blog has to do with who Maccabee hangs out with. On violin/viola and vocals, she’s recorded a roster of her own work and also backed numerous artists and bands, extending into the creative music realm with the likes of Aaron Novik. She recently guested with improv-metal trio Trigger for an album I think is called Trigger + 1. (Side note: That album and Maccabee’s own albums are on Minus Zero, a label that donates proceeds to Planned Parenthood. Do check it out.)

Their usual music already had its share of silliness. The lyrics to “Cruise Ship Theme” on Handyman’s Honeymoon (2006) are just animal noises spoken deadpan: quack-quack-quack and ribbit-ribbit-ribbit. Sing Along has a similarly off-kilter trick in “There Is Music Everywhere” a paean to music of ambient sounds around us, much as John Cage showed us with 4’33”. To bring the point home — and maybe give you a chance to discuss it with your kids — the track ends with a couple of minutes of field recordings: a river, a playground, crickets, birds.

Look, Ramon & Jessica are not gonna go all Derek Bailey on you, but I have a spot for folky music that’s intelligent and nicely harmonized (see: Christine Lavin). As for the kiddie-song aspect, my kids grew up with TBMG’s now-classic album No! and Dev2.0, which was a Disney-sponsored Devo cover band consisting of five kids. Scoff all you want, but it’s so gratifying to hear your little girl burst out at the dinner table with the “yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah” opening to “Uncontrollable Urge.” (The Dev2.0 version reworks the lyrics to make it clear they’re singing about compulsive snacking.) It’s wonderful when your young kids fall in love with music you can actually like, not just tolerate. If you’ve got little ones at home, this could be your chance.

Sonny Simmons, 1933-2021

I was slow to pick up on the passing of Sonny Simmons, and like so many others, I’m sad but still grateful. Grateful that we have his music, but also that this once-forgotten ’60s free-jazz pioneer got a second act. As has been well documented, Simmons was homeless in San Francisco for a long spell, eventually getting back into the recording studio in the ’90s and migrating to Paris sometime around 1995. The 21st century saw him release a flurry of work, including some ambitious albums like Nomadic with Moksha Sannyasan and Beyond the Planets with Delphine Latil and Thomas Bellier and a whole series of albums with The Cosmosamatics, the band he fronted with fellow saxophonist Marcus Miller.

My first exposure to Simmons was in text form. The liner notes of Bruce Ackley’s trio album, The Hearing (Avant, 1998), mention that the track “Juggernaut” was written for Simmons:

For many years I had the fortune to hear Sonny play on the streets of San Francisco. One evening, while I was at an opening for a friend’s painting exhibit in a downtown gallery, I heard the sound of his alto out the window as he played in the nearly deserted streets four stories below. I knew it had to be Sonny because I could hear the sound of the Dolphy school being driven up into the air. I immediately left the gallery and stood in the street listening for several minutes to his enormous tone and cascading ideas.

Back then, I didn’t fully grasp the Eric Dolphy reference, but I got Ackely’s meaning.

As happens with any scrap of useful information, I started noticing Simmons’ name more often — in print, in conversation — the small, passing references among those in the know. Soon enough, Arhoolie Records in El Cerrito, California, rereleased Simmons’ 1969 album Manhattan Egos and sent a copy to us at KZSU. I got to experience Sonny full blast, including the four beautifully raw live tracks appended to the album. Eventually I would dig up more of Simmons’ output, mostly through used record bins.

I even got to write about Simmons. During my brief stint with the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Mission District restaurant Bruno’s took a chance on booking a long series of free-jazz gigs. Simmons played either the premiere show or one shortly after, which I covered in brief for the Guardian. Good times.

There are two documentaries about Simmons, documenting his musical ambitions and his struggles living in the Bay Area. The one cited in Simmons’ recent obituaries is In Modern Time by Robert Brewster; it flips between Simmons’ current-day (2003) work in San Francisco and a trip back to Louisiana, where white vigilantes literally forced his family off of their farm when Sonny was 6.

The second, available through Edgetone Records, is The Multiple Rated X Truth by Brandon Evans, a saxophonist who released collaborations with Simmons on his Parallactic record label. Here’s a preview.

Near as I can tell, Simmons’ passing didn’t rate an obituary in The New York Times, in contrast to many other pivotal jazz figures. He hadn’t played much in the city since the 1960s, as this brief review from 1995 explains. As frustrated as Simmons was with the Bay Area, the music community here did appreciate him. He would eventually find greener pastures in Paris, of course, and I can only hope that after decades of struggle, he found some modicum of peace.