Drummer Gerald Cleaver’s fourth album as a leader, and the first with his Uncle June ensemble, Be It As I See It (buy it from Amazon) is a wildly ambitious and eclectic collection. Using his family’s experiences during the Great Migration as inspiration, his multi-part compositions try to convey the emotional journey his mom and dad, and the greater African-American population, endured in the move North toward an uncertain but more autonomous future. To convey this cataract of feelings, Cleaver ranges over a wide swath of black culture, from the oral storytelling tradition of African griots to the organized cacophony of Roscoe Mitchell and the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians).
The Uncle June band, named for Cleaver’s dad’s nickname, is flexible and eccentric enough to handle everything the leader throws at them. It’s made up of Andrew Bishop on multiple reeds, Tony Malaby on sax, Drew Gress on bass, Mat Maneri on viola and Craig Taborn on keys, with Jean Carla Rodea’s vocals, Andy Taub’s banjo and Ryan Macstaller’s guitar adding additional color to a few tracks.
The album kicks off with “To Love,” a joyous wall-of-sound concoction on which Bishop and Malaby improvise around each other’s twirling lines, with Taborn laying down a thick squall, which breaks down when Cleaver shouts out the first line of the titular poem: “To love is to be loved!” It has the feel of Charles Mingus at his friskiest, and sets the tone of wild, collective warmth that Cleaver wants to convey across the whole disc.
The heart of the album is a suite of tunes entitled “Fence & Post (for Mom & Dad),” a five-part homage to his folks that starts with the lovely miniature “Alluvia,” a lilting two-minute melody urged on by rolling swells from Bishop and Malaby, which could have soundtracked the anticipatory tension of his parents’ first date. Then he gets mystical on “The Lights,” an agglomeration of Taborn’s keyboard bleeps and rumbles, Gess’s hard bowing, and Maneri’s frantic figures. In the liner notes, Cleaver describes it as inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away, and “thinking about my ancestors appearing as lights, still traveling around.” It’s a dark and pointillist sound, redolent of the AACM’s experiments with silence in their compositions.
“Lee/Mae” is a lush, elegant chamber piece, and love song, written for his grandmother (Carrie Lee) and his mom (Carrie Mae). Maneri soars here, offering plaintive swirls as the reeds state the melody with grand understatement. Cleaver then rolls through the sonic collage of “Statues/UmbRa” and the hard-swinging, uptempo “Ruby Ritchie/Well.”
The story continues on “He Said,” in which Cleaver’s father, John, dispenses advice about how to rightly live in the world (“Just because you said it/doesn’t mean you meant it”) over a fidgety melody, as if Gerald was sitting on his dad’s knee, humming as he eagerly soaked up knowledge.
The highlight of the disc is the celebratory “22 Minutes (the wedding song),” a waltz backed by Taub’s banjo and Rodea’s wordless vocals. It really opens up with Taborn’s airy, Monkish solo, which stutters and dances around the melody with bluesy abandon, a piece for the wedding party. Andrew Bishop’s clarinet follows it up with a more lyrical solo, a stately and romantic excursion indicative of the bride and groom’s first dance, with their futures wide open.
—R. Emmet Sweeney