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This sextet, the brainchild of drummer Gerald Cleaver, first appeared on record more than a decade ago. It’s a top-notch assembly of talent, featuring the front line of tenor saxophonist JD Allen, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, and Andrew Bishop on various woodwinds. The group was captured on stage at the New Haven, Connecticut, venue Firehouse 12 in December of 2006, the spirited results of which are presented on this new release.
While Cleaver is known for applying his talents in more "out” jazz settings with the likes of Matthew Shipp and Roscoe Mitchell, balance is the key to understanding his motivations with this group. Cleaver’s sweet spot lies in seamlessly incorporating avant-garde elements within a more mainstream context. There’s the way the slightly off-kilter harmony in the main theme of “Pilgrim’s Progress” is offset by the hard-driving rhythm and the deeply melodic solos from Pelt, Allen and pianist Ben Waltzer. “The Silly One” presents a melody that’s even more unsettling, but Bishop’s bass clarinet acts as a ballast, steadying the dissonant front-line passages. Even amid the tune’s intermittent rhythmic disruptions — and a few brief passages of group free improvisation — Cleaver and bassist Chris Lightcap maintain a funky mid-tempo glide that helps smooth the edges.
Contrast is another key to Cleaver’s compositional method. “Tale of Bricks” opens with a low-key, free section featuring Cleaver, Waltzer and Lightcap. Cleaver and Lightcap eventually lock into a groove that invites the front line to burst through the abstraction with a soulful melodic statement. The waltz “Carla’s Day” alternates ballad sections with bursts of high-energy swing, creating a push-pull tension. Pelt’s solo, typically clear-eyed and lyrical, adds to the piece’s intensity.
There’s a lot going on, but the energy of the performances and the ingenuity of Cleaver’s designs make it easy to just sit back and take flight with the music. — John Frederick Moore