Sunday, December 11, 2011
Living, letting live: Gerald Cleaver's Black Host
Photo: Juan-Carlos Hernández
This past Saturday night I heard Black Host, a new project led by drummer Gerald Cleaver, at Cornelia Street Café. (The band was concluding a five-night mini tour of NYC, during which it had stopped by three other local venues.) What drew me in was partly my recent interest in Cleaver-led projects (his latest album, Be It As I See It, is a stunner) but the personnel—Darius Jones on alto, Brandon Seabrook on guitar, Pascal Niggenkemper on bass and the mighty Cooper-Moore on piano—was also a major factor.
Throughout the evening's two sets, I kept thinking about the make-up of the band, or more accurately, the fact that in jazz bands are often made, period, custom-built for each gig or recording session. Of course there are exceptions, groups like the Bad Plus that have impressed me precisely because they don't conform to this "leader plus the auxiliary players he or she happens to have convened for the night" model. I kept thinking about the fact that even once players have established themselves, not just as improvisers but as bandleaders and conceptualists, they can still appear in other people's projects, without any sense of it being beneath them. If you happen to be a jazz bandleader—it helps to live in New York and have a decent budget—you can actually assemble your dream group.
It's an obvious fact, one of the first principles of modern jazz, really, that personnel is fluid, but watching Black Host last night, I was re-struck by the special-ness, the vast potential of that idea. Say you're Gerald Cleaver, a great drummer and an experienced bandleader; you can think to yourself, I'd like to put together a project that includes four other established players, bandleaders in their own right: Cooper-Moore (one-time leader of Triptych Myth, multi-instrumental legend), Jones (increasingly prominent leader of a trio and quartet), Seabrook (leader of the punk-jazz force Seabrook Power Plant) and Niggenkemper (I'm not as familiar with his work, but his PNTrio has two CDs out). You can write some engaging music to fuel the enterprise; then, best of all, you can wind the whole thing up and watch it go.
(In rock, the band-building process typically happens once, right at the start. Personnel might shift, of course—guitarist Joe Petrucelli and I founded STATS roughly a decade ago, and we've worked with four different bassists during that time—but really what you're looking for is fixed membership.)
In the case of Black Host, you were hearing what happens when this process pays off, when you draft various players for a project and they get along outstandingly. What I love about this whole phenomenon is how, due to the x-factor of improvisation, a bandleader can't know in advance exactly how his recruits are going to interact. At Cornelia, I was struck specifically by the Cooper-Moore/Seabrook connection. There was one episode, I think it was during the second set, when C-M took a particularly wild solo (one of many that found his fingers, and forearms, scampering across the keyboard, summoning a riot of notes—chaotic and yet fully coherent, tasteful and related to the piece at hand) and lighted upon this violent, trilling figure. Seabrook looked up, clearly transfixed by the pattern, and then began to mimic it, employing the turbo-picking right hand that serves him so well when playing banjo in the Power Plant. The two men, a pianist in his mid-sixties and a guitarist in his mid-thirties were engaged in maniacal game of Hot Potato.
At other points I recall Cooper-Moore watching Seabrook or Niggenkemper solo with obvious glee, clearly fascinated by their ingenuity (throughout the evening, Seabrook was sampling various passages, particularly Jones's saxophone lines, with a small tape recorder and playing them back through his guitar pick-ups; other times he'd toss out razor-toothed ninja stars of notes, like the final flourish in John McLaughlin's epic riff at the end of Miles's "Right Off," from A Tribute to Jack Johnson—one iteration of McLaughlin moment I'm referring to comes right at 18:49 here; and during Niggenkemper's solo intro to one piece, the bassist held some kind of metal bowl, or maybe an aluminum pan?, against the strings to produce a fruitfully abrasive texture). It struck me in these moments that by convening various players, you're not just inviting them to play together, but also to listen to one another, to simply be together for that segment of time. (This fifth straight night of performance seemed like just the right juncture to savor the new relationships within Black Host: The players were comfortable together, but still a bit in awe of one another, still full of wonder.)
Darius Jones contributed his trademark combination of volcanic passion and laserlike focus. As impressive a bandleader as he is, I was struck last night by what a model collaborator he is as well. During the written portions—particularly during the second piece in the first set, a staggeringly gorgeous ballad that I immediately wanted to hear again as soon as it was over—he served Cleaver's vision, articulating the melodies with total clarity and a complex sensation of harsh sweetness—like honey with an underlying pungency—the tenderest notes paradoxically seeming the most effortful. And during the improvised portions, Jones served the hive mind, the collectively settled-upon direction of the music. Sometimes he led, delivering a full-on burry blare; other times, he sat back and reveled in the mayhem, grinning, cheering even, homing in on the Cooper-Moore/Seabrook firestorm, and doling out brief punctuation phrases. Like Cooper-Moore, Jones is a model onstage listener; you feel what others are playing more deeply while watching him respond to it. And that goes back to my point above: As a bandleader, in bringing players together, especially players like these, ones with huge personalities, you're creating this little society, a forum for new relationships to develop. I know Jones has a history with Cooper-Moore, but I'm not sure how much either player has worked with Seabrook, or whether any of the three had previously played with Niggenkemper but there was a very clear sense of camaraderie to Black Host, and one thing that fascinated me was how out of the spotlight Cleaver, the man with the plan, was. In light of what was going on up front, his drumming was a subtle glue.
You did feel his guiding hand in the written material, of course. There was a lot of variety to it. Unlike on Be It As I See It, which features short, chamber-music-like episodes, here the focus was on lengthy pieces that set up an atmosphere and explored it. The opening piece of the first set featured a subtle funk backbeat, with other instruments swirling on top; then came the remarkable ballad I mentioned above, a truly poetic song without words—not unlike "Charles Street Sunrise" from Be It—and a more hectic, uptempo piece. The second set was both harsher and more abstract. I remember some patient, drawn-out melodies and others that were more jagged—weird little sound shapes played in unison by Jones and Seabrook. I remember both hurtling uptempo swing and moments of pure, out-of-time weightlessness. Overall there was just enough shape and contour to hold the enterprise together, but Cleaver had left a lot of room for the spontaneity. I remember that the second set ended with all players partaking of a collective freak-out: Jones barking harshly, Seabrook wringing staticky squeals out of his tape-player/pick-up apparatus, Cooper-Moore leapfrogging his hands across the keyboard. Cleaver stood behind his kit, pressing a stick vertically into the head of his floor tom and threading it up through his fist (a technique I've seen before and experimented with myself but that I know of no proper name for), taking in the whole enterprise stoically yet attentively.
This was the kind of "It's alive!" moment that I've been trying to describe here. As a jazz bandleader in a forum like this, you're composing and preparing, yes; like the host of a dinner party, you're cooking, cleaning, stocking the fridge with beverages, making sure you've got enough place settings, etc. You're probably micromanaging a bit throughout the evening, especially during those first crucial, perhaps tense moments when the guests start to arrive. But at a certain point, you're letting go, allowing your friends to make of the evening what they will. There's a certain joy in seeing the preparations pay off as you expected; someone loves a particular dish that you labored over, say. But what makes you proudest is watching the guests socialize, seeing unexpected new friendships blossom in real time. You've ceded control; now the personalities themselves are in charge.
Again, this is not some shocking revelation; by and large, it's the way jazz works. But it doesn't always work as well as it did in Black Host, where you could see the players reveling in these new relationships. (Clearly, it didn't hurt that they'd been sharing stages for four nights already.) At this point, as an artist, you haven't just assembled a cast to execute your vision; you've founded a little village, a self-sufficient community with a vision of its own. Once it's humming along with its own momentum, you cease to be a leader, per se. At that point, you're just living, and letting live.