Pure Jazz! Pure Joy! Man these guys are playing some smokin' hot tunes! I got drawn in by Pilgrim's Progress, but had to go outside Bandcamp to sample the other tracks. Not every fan will do that and Sunyside Records is doing their roster a disservice by not allowing the entire album to be heard. Top notch drummer, composer and one hell of a band.
Drummer Gerald Cleaver has been unfairly pigeonholed as a free jazz player for much of his career, though his efforts as a bandleader and composer provide much more than that. Cleaver’s musical output has always bridged the divide between the structured and the free. Appropriately, his band Violet Hour was named for that time of day where it isn’t quite day and not quite night, a perfect metaphor for Cleaver’s music that hovers between jazz traditions.
On his new recording, Live at Firehouse 12, Cleaver reconvenes this allstar ensemble for a rare performance and live recording at the New Haven, Connecticut venue. Violet Hour was first assembled for Cleaver’s 2008 recording Detroit and features some of the most inspiring instrumentalists that have come into the drummer’s orbit, most of them also hailing from or having connections to Cleaver’s home town of Detroit, the state of Michigan or the Midwest. The ensemble is made up of some of the best and most in demand musicians in jazz, all questing souls who fortunately managed to cross paths in New York City.
Cleaver has known JD Allen since playing with the then teenaged tenor saxophonist in Rodney Whitaker’s band in Detroit. Originally from Lansing, Michigan, pianist Ben Waltzer was able to establish an instant rapport with Cleaver once they met in New York. Chris Lightcap is as dependable a bassist as one can find and Cleaver has felt their bond as a unit on many performing and recording opportunities over the years. Woodwind master Andrew Bishop is the ensemble’s secret weapon, providing an instrument to suit whatever Cleaver’s compositions require. Since originally hearing him years ago in Lonnie Plaxico’s ensemble, Cleaver has been impressed with trumpeter Jeremy Pelt’s spirit and no holds barred directness.
Violet Hour’s latest recording shows the ensemble’s sense of brotherhood. There is a unity and trust that leads to the music’s unbridled abandon. Violet Hour’s music is moving forward and their joy in playing together can be heard on the recording. The style doesn’t matter as much as the group camaraderie and love.
Most of the material that was played came from the earlier recording, which was a tribute to Detroit, the city where Cleaver grew up and developed as a musician and a man. Cleaver still looks to his hometown for inspiration, though he reflects on the city’s tribulations over the past decades as a metaphor for the hardships and tests one will face during one’s lifetime. Though things might look bad, the spirit is there and needs to shine through. It is worth the perseverance.
Cleaver has found much to admire in the compositional lessons provided by jazz greats Wayne Shorter and Andrew Hill. These two composers’ influence can be heard in the pieces that the drummer has penned for Violet Hour. Hill’s sound variety is especially present through Bishop’s ability to switch between tenor sax, bass clarinet, soprano sax and flute.
The recording begins with the punchy “Pilgrim’s Progress,” a piece inspired by John Bunyan’s Christian allegory and is about trying to overcome even though there will be a price. The piece highlights Cleaver’s effort to provide more orchestral harmonies in a small ensemble setting, relying on the switching of Bishop’s woodwinds. On “The Silly One,” Cleaver presents a piece that is rhythmically omni-directional with a uniquely asymmetrical melodic statement, the result being intriguing and unsettled. The title of the restrained then uplifting “Tale of Bricks” refers to the Book of Exodus and Pharaoh’s unmanageable expectation of brick production from the Jews without the proper resources. Cleaver takes the parable and applies it to there always being something trying to kick your ass and you must find a way to overcome.
The waltzing “Carla’s Day” is a piece of pure love dedicated to Cleaver’s wife, which blossomed from a sketch from his first days of composing into a beautiful piece developed over the couple’s first years together. The recording concludes with Cleaver’s anthem penned to his hometown, a place that he reflects on as a place of grandeur of his youth and its current desolation. “Detroit” is a song of celebration for a city that will continue to push through, no matter the challenges it is presented.
Though they are rare, every performance of Gerald Cleaver’s Violet Hour band is a celebration: a celebration of brotherhood; a celebration of strength and vision; a celebration of the place that shaped the members of the band. Their Live at Firehouse 12 is a perfect encapsulation of that spirit and a clarion call to uplift.
released November 1, 2019
J.D. Allen - tenor saxophone
Andrew Bishop - bass clarinet, soprano & tenor saxophone
Jeremy Pelt - trumpet
Ben Waltzer - piano
Chris Lightcap - bass
Gerald Cleaver - drums