On the Beat

Drummer Gerald Cleaver salutes Yusef Lateef — and Detroit
Photograph by Juan Carlos Hernández

If you’re going to flat-out steal an album cover from a giant like Detroit saxophonist Yusef Lateef, you’d better have your ducks and dotted eighth notes all in a row. Lateef and his 1969 album, Yusef Lateef’s Detroit, are certified classics.

Fortunately, the excellent Detroit drummer Gerald Cleaver — and his new CD, Gerald Cleaver’s Detroit, which comes complete with the road map Lateef used 40 years ago on his album — deliver a fine, strong set of original tunes and confident, emotional solos.

Like Lateef’s vinyl, Cleaver’s latest release puts a new twist on the sharp harmonies and bumping rhythms of the modern jazz sound. But where Lateef blended and softened those edgy sounds with the gospel and soul grooves of late-1960s Detroit, Cleaver and band tumble them into constantly shifting moods and tempos that tell personal stories — past and present.

“I just wanted to give tribute; I wanted to be a part of the tradition,” Cleaver, a Cass Tech grad, explained by phone from Paris between tour dates with a European trio. “To me, Detroit “is seminal; it’s still producing people, [and] I’m still a part of that. So it’s a living tribute. The continuum continues.”

For Cleaver, who moved from the Detroit area to Brooklyn seven years ago, that tradition was blooming in the fifth grade.

“I remember us kids in a classroom talking about favorite musicians, what we like, albums and such,” he says. “Kids got to talkin’ about Michael Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone. When I said ‘Yusef Lateef,’ they looked at me like, ‘Who in the hell you talking about?’ ”

So Gerald Cleaver’s Detroit is rooted in stuff the drummer and school-age pals were already listening to and playing while coming of age here in the 1980s.

There are slightly off-kilter, circular bass lines; tightly sweet-sour horn harmonies; solos that ramble along fully exposed over bare bass lines; lots of sharp edges and soft, sweet spots.

The stories begin immediately, with the mysterious cymbal sounds that open the album’s first cut, “Far East (side).” It’s followed by the playful, out-of-step tumbling of “The Silly One.” And, a few tracks later, the rumbling and chaos of “Seven Sisters Down” recalls the takedown of an old east-side power plant.

The CD art, including the old metropolitan street map and the provocative, contemporary photos of Detroit’s forlorn beauty, speak to how the city has changed since Cleaver was born here, six years before Lateef released his Detroit. But the music, while sometimes tinged with regret and memory, looks forward. His session closes with the increasingly jaunty and determined “Detroit (Keep It in Mind)” and the downright happy “Praise the Lord.”

Detroit is a tradition Cleaver wants to celebrate, not mourn.

The project is dedicated to four Detroit drummers who taught Cleaver: George Goldsmith, Lawrence Williams, Motown Records master Pistol Allen, and the magnificent Roy Brooks. Like many Detroit greats, they each had a very distinctive style steeped in great playing.

“The level of musicianship was incredible,” the drummer says. “That is standard for Detroit. That’s my Detroit, the one I grew up with.”

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