DC Jazz Festival: A Conversation with Black Host’s Gerald Cleaver
Black Host is the brainchild of drummer Gerald Cleaver, one of the most technically proficient, versatile, and all-around enticing traps players in the world today. The quintet itself includes alto saxophonist Darius Jones, guitarist Brandon Seabrook, keyboardist Cooper-Moore, and bassist Pascal Niggenkemper. Their 2013 debut recording, Life in the Sugar Candle Mines, is so laden with abrasive and experimental soundscapes—"Gromek," for one, seems to pick up right where The Beatles' "Helter Skelter" fades out—that it'd be easy to assume they're the point of the ensemble's existence.
Not so, Cleaver tells me in a conversation ahead of Black Host's Sunday night performance at Capitol Hill's The Fridge as part of the D.C. Jazz Festival. He does, however, allow that it's a major component of the sound, even as he explains what's really at the core of Black Host, and discusses the contributions of each of the musicians in the band.
Washington City Paper: Listening to Life in the Sugar Candle Mines, it seems to have as much in common with an acid-rock freakout as with the avant-garde jazz tradition. Is there a specific concept behind the band?
Gerald Cleaver: Yeah. Believe it or not, I didn't have any particular free jazz or any of that kind of idea in mind, necessarily. What I had in mind was coming from the perspective of just songwriting. Essentially they're just simple songs, every one of them; some are exploded, like you take "Gromek" which lasts for 13 minutes or "Ayler Children," which is really long and stretched out. But it's really meant to be pretty song-y. And the ballads are pretty much the same: "May Be Home," for example, is a minor blues.
Abstraction is not really my idea: The compositional intent is just to expand and stretch, and put different lenses on the music at different times. But the melody and the song are the most important elements of the music.
WCP: You're credited with "sound design" on the record. What does that mean in this context?
GC: On several of those tracks there are electronics—they're pretty subtle; sometimes you can't tell. Because everybody's dealing with extended techniques, so sometimes you can't tell what's coming from the guitar, what's coming from Cooper-Moore's synths, or what Pascal does with the bass with his styrofoam. So everybody's dealing with extended ideas, but underneath a lot of that stuff was electronics that weren't meant to stick out. Maybe "Amsterdam/Frames" is the most obvious example: Most of that is computer-generated sound, or a lot of it is.
WCP: And how will that work in live performance? Or will it work in live performance?
GC: Yeah, at least right now I choose not to do it. No. 1, I'm lazy and don't want to carry it all around. And No. 2, I really like being able to give the players all the space that they need to expand their palette or not, play more traditionally or not. I don't want to make this schticky, like "you have to have this sound in order for this song to work." I want to keep it as flexible as possible.
WCP: It's interesting that you say abstraction wasn't a focus for the band, and then you have in it people like Cooper-Moore and Darius Jones, who are such abstract thinkers. What were you looking for when you started putting personnel together?
GC: It has everything to do with them, with those particular personalities. It started out a couple years ago with me seeing Cooper-Moore, Charles Gayle, and William Parker play, and it taught me how powerful he was. I'd always liked Cooper-Moore, but I heard this core element in his playing that just struck me very strongly, that is magical. And he's that kind of person, too, when you talk to him. So I just liked being around him, and so really I built the band around that—he was the first person I thought of.
Then I play with Pascal a lot, and thought "He'd be a great choice." I just built on it; each one of them, over these five or six years or so, they just struck me as people that I could really get along with in a musical fashion. It was an experiment. I had an idea what it would sound like, but it wasn't until I started writing that I really felt the potential of it. And I still am, because I'm still trying to tailor that music to those very specific people.
WCP: And does it sound like what you thought it'd sound like?
GC: Pretty much. Actually, they've taken it past what I thought it could do and be. So I'm happily pleased.
WCP: I'm going to mention a band that sounds nothing like Black Host to the naked ear, but listening to you talk about the compositional process, I'm reminded of the Jeremy Pelt Quintet that you were a member of. Is that a completely out-of-whack comparison?
GC: In the sense of simple melodic ideas, there is some similarities, but I draw the line in that Jeremy's music is thematic. He states those themes and then he extemporizes on those themes. We're playing songs, but the improvisations become songs in themselves. Even though they don't necessarily have to be related to the song itself. So it's not like the typical, state the theme and then expand on the theme and recapitulate. But if you mean it in terms of melodic simplicity, I can agree with that.
WCP: So then, when you're composing for the band, how much does texture figure into your writing? And how much of the texture is just dependent on where the improvisation goes?
GC: I think that's a good question, because texture is a very critical element. Ranging from a single melodic line and the way that Darius plays it—and if you listen closely to the way Darius manipulates his alto sound, and with one note he'll manipulate his breath or change the shading of the instrument, and that's texture. Or if the five of us are engaged in some mass improvisation, that's a certain texture also, which incidentally always has a very coherent destination.
Sound, at least in the way I'm conceiving it here, always has a very particular destination. A very specific trajectory. I want the listener to feel a certain thing, have a certain kind of relationship to melody, to harmony, and to structure, through texture.
WCP: That also applies to your approach on the drums in this band, doesn't it? There's a basic pulse, but all kinds of colors from the kit.
GC: Yes. Very much so. I have a certain way I think about it when I teach, when I try to relate certain concepts. There's a linear way to play and there's a textural way to play. You take players like Jo Jones or Max Roach or Art Blakey, they have a very linear approach. But even someone like Art Blakey, I think of him as being one of the ones who started this more textural approach. And also, I jokingly call him the first pop drummer, because he has a specific way of approaching rhythm in the service of the song: He uses it very specifically.
And then the textural guys, for instance, Elvin [Jones] is the easy one. And Tony Williams, Milford Graves, Andrew Cyrille, Sunny Murray. Those guys are more texturalists. And this is my designation; nobody else's. This is the way I choose to think about them. They all have both linear and textural elements, don't get me wrong, they've all studied hard. It's just the way they color the music comes out in a more linear or more textural fashion. I love all of that and would love to mitigate my sound accordingly: Whatever it needs in the moment, whether more or less, I'm not afraid to do that.