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Album Of The Week

Obliviously Blissful: In The Wilderness By Gerald Cleaver, Brandon Lopez & Hprizm
Antonio Poscic , March 16th, 2023 09:49

An album of live improvised music, remixed and restructured by one of the founders of Antipop Consortium proves a hazy, smokey trip for Antonio Poscic

L to R: Hprizm, Brandon Lopez, Gerald Cleaver. Photo credit: John Rogers

Over the past two decades, Gerald Cleaver has distinguished himself as one of the most important and prolific drummers in the sphere of contemporary creative and free jazz. While based in New York, his influence expands well outside the confines of the city’s local scene. From Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill to Ivo Perelman and Matthew Shipp, he has collaborated with everyone who’s anyone in the field. Simultaneously, his expressive, often dramatically dynamic style left a recognisable mark on numerous records, regardless if playing as a sideman or leader. But beyond these intermittent snapshots of a musician’s career exist threads that are invisible to the outside world or incompatible with the established narrative, ideas and relationships that eclipse music and take hold in everyday life.

In this context, Cleaver’s first two detours from jazz into a purely electronic idiom on 2020’s Signs and 2021’s Griots might have come as a surprise to onlookers. But in fact, they made complete sense. The specific rhythmic characteristics and structural patterns found in Cleaver’s drumming and the shared roots that link jazz, hip-hop, and the electronic traditions of his native Detroit became a natural foundation for those albums. Around a pulsing central flow drawn from minimal techno, Cleaver layered subtle but effective electronic textures and jazz flourishes, creating beats that, while never truly danceable, had an irresistible, heady pull. In a sense, In The Wilderness is another branch of this exploration of electronic music as seen through the prism of contemporary jazz (and beyond), made together with musicians of a kindred spirit and understanding.

Bassist and composer Brandon Lopez has been one of Cleaver’s frequent collaborators over the past few years. A similarly crucial and omnipresent figure in New York’s jazz scene, Lopez has appeared alongside the drummer both in as a duo and in various other constellations. Their most recent outing, the stunning 2022 trio effort with poet Fred Moten, is especially of note. Meanwhile, Hprizm (alias High Priest) – a founding member of the experimental hip-hop crew Antipop Consortium – has tinkered directly with Cleaver’s electronic output in the past. On 2021’s Signs Remixed, he reworked pieces from Cleaver’s solo electronic debut into something much grimier and more sinister by slowing things down, surfacing static-drenched beats, and pushing the album’s lusher expressions into background. In The Wilderness gets a similar makeover.

The basis for the album is found in recordings made during a live performance by Cleaver and Lopez at the 2019 edition of 577 Records’ Forward Festival. Yet listening to the album in its final shape, you’d be hard-pressed to identify elements of the original free improv-laced session. Hprizm was present with Cleaver and Lopez on that festival stage, but his contributions began in earnest once the final applause of the night subsided. Rather than just a remix, Hprizm approaches the recorded material as a collection of stems to be pitch-shifted, resequenced, spliced, and sometimes mangled beyond recognition. Sampling jazz is a cornerstone of hip-hop and Hprizm himself has employed jazz musicians on records in the past – Wadada Leo Smith, Shabaka Hutchings, Vijay Iyer, and others participated on 2018’s excellent retrofuturistic hip-hop pair Catching A Body/Magnetic Memory – but he has never been quite so adventurous and free with his remixes as on the twelve cuts here.

The album opener ‘Mainsource A’ is perhaps the only track on which the original call-and-response between Lopez’s grumbling double bass lines and Cleaver’s rolls heavy with hi-hats can be heard somewhat undisturbed. Even then, a scuzzy patina and smokey haze cushion each string pluck and snare hit, giving them a lovely anachronistic feel akin to sounds found in some abandoned archive. Hprizm dresses them in incisive yet wistful synth lines, disembodied voices, and watery splashes, revealing a melodic side to the overcast atmosphere. While this melodicism is inherent to Hprizm’s approach, all three musicians participated in production and post-production, potentially hinting towards some of Cleaver’s understated sense of harmony being pulled into the mix.

But it’s with ‘T Top’ that things get seriously dark and intense. Here, Cleaver’s kick drums are made to sound like a submerged TR-808, while various noises of unknown provenance – some of them resembling a whooping crowd – flow in reverse and skitter around the central axis. The following ‘Hopoff’ doesn’t relent and instead double downs by turning the screw of a tight, increasingly tense atmosphere. It reaches for thumps that march forward tirelessly and syncopations that skip as if dragged through mud, then sneaks slivers of seductive trip-hop grooves into the very core of it all. Although fairly short, the simplicity of these cuts is deceptive, as just beneath the surface, their flesh shifts and rearranges itself continually.

‘Rama’ breaks up its own skeleton into pieces and allows a mind-boggling polyrhythm to assemble. Like a hundred stuttering clock mechanisms ticking simultaneously, the clash of layers moving in different rhythms and directions is both confounding and irresistible, until a jolt takes the air out of the room and pitches everything way down. Later, ‘Blowback’ attempts to explore textural qualities. Elastic squeaks engage in a toy-like dialogue, only for a filthy central rhythm to obliterate them, making way for bits of spectral melody and obliviously blissful background chirps. There is something particularly jazzy about this track, which doesn’t seem to be rooted in the same phenomenology that emerges from the jazz-rap concoctions cherished by Steve Lehman and others. Rather, genres interact at a much deeper, more fundamental level, ultimately resulting in recombinant forms.

Elsewhere, ‘Mainsource C’ and ‘Hallucinate’ make use of Lopez’s bowed lines. On the former, they are relegated to the role of background texture, while their screaming lead edges disappear under sheets of vibrating tones reminiscent of a Rhodes piano. On the latter, they take centre stage, stumbling and slicing among a forest of beats and sloshing effects. The strained glissandi are brought to extremes here, sounding like cartoon phantasmagoria, while an unreliable voice assures us: “very rarely do I hallucinate.” Across the downtempo triptych ‘GLP3’/’GLP1’/’GLP’ everything becomes beautiful again, with breathless beats pulsing slowly in the midst of expansive, theremin-evoking tapestries. ‘Ono’ then turns Lopez’s bass lines into shadows that follow Cleaver’s tom hits and analogue synth chants – a gossamer aesthetic reminiscent of Andy Stott’s ghostly techno.

As the pumping revery ‘Mainsource C1’ closes the album with shaking percussion, the noise of the audience applauding comes like a snap of fingers waking you from hypnosis, breaking the spell that In The Wilderness spent building across its forty-odd minutes. While the concept of releasing a live jazz performance exclusively as a reimagined work is intriguing in its own right, the fact that the result is so successful when actually experienced is the real triumph here.