A Serendipitous, High-Voltage Live Album and Crown Heights Appearance from Gerald Cleaver
A rabbi, a minister and an imam walk into a bar.
They’ve all had a bunch to drink. Jazz plays over the PA: it’s obviously a live recording, and the band are cooking. They have a loose, comfortable, solo-centric camaraderie, over a floating swing. The three holy men try to figure out who’s playing.
The trumpeter enters with a wild volley, then digs in, hard and bluesy. “Is that Woody Shaw?” the rabbi ponders. “He was Jewish, you know. Woody Schwartz!”
The rabbi is kidding. He doesn’t have a clue who this is. The sax player is more suave: at one point, the pianist goes down in the lows with a snarl to see if he’ll take the bait and get all gritty, but he doesn’t. The bass player walks the changes furiously; the drummer is colorful and has the whole kit resonating.
“This is one of those situations where we’ll never know who this was. It’s just some random night that somebody had the presence of mind to record,” the imam asserts. That’s a Muslim thing: the Prophet tells us to chill because some things are beyond our understanding.
The minister has other things in mind. He asks the bartender, who tells him that the record is Gerald Cleaver’s Violet Hour, Live at Firehouse 12 (for the sake of the story, let’s say he’s streaming the thing from Spotify). If you want to be like these three wise men of dubious sobriety but impeccable taste, you can see Cleaver lead a completely different but similarly incendiary trio with Brandon Seabrook on guitar and Brandon Lopez on bass at Bar Bayeux in Crown Heights tomorrow night, Feb 5 at 8 PM.
If you’ve scrolled down this far, you’ve figured out that this is a party record. The middle of the lineup is allstar caliber, and future Hall of Famer JD Allen, on tenor, isn’t even the cleanup hitter. That might be trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, or multi-reedman Andrew Bishop, who sizzles here. Chris Lightcap is the bass player, with Ben Waltzer on piano.
The first track, the one that the three holy men happened to walk in on, is aptly titled Pilgrim’s Progress, meant to illustrate triumph over adversity. After that, Bishop switches between genially smoky bass clarinet and some slashing moments on soprano sax over the syncopatedly dancing, allusively latin-tinged groove of The Silly One, the rest of the band following in a darker mood.
From there they segue into Tale of Bricks, a grim oldtime gospel tune cached amid a busily stairstepping drive. It’s Exodus, movement of jah people, deciding that Pharaoh was a Silicon Valley boss and that ‘s time to take their talent elsewhere. Over about twelve minutes, Pelt chooses his incisions and then wails, as Allen does later; Bishop’s bass clarinet shivers and combusts. Told you this was solo-centric.
Carla’s Day starts out with a moody, distantly Frank Foster-ish vampiness, the daily struggle making way for better times, speeding up, slowing down. It’s the album’s most contiguous number; Allen’s whirls and spirals and dissections might be its high point. The bandleader’s rumble and Lightcap’s looming chords make the bridge to the defiantly swinging, even catchier, Brubeck-tinged Detroit, a shout-out to Cleaver and Allen’s hometown, This isn’t music for people with short attention spans but it is very entertaining if you have a long one, half a dozen road warriors captured doing what they do best, in good company.