Gerald Cleaver — Signs (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.