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Album Review

Given that the three names that adorn this cover are placed in alphabetical order, it is safe — before even hearing Farmers by Nature — to assume that there is no leader in this acoustic trio. The principals here, drummer Gerald Cleaver, bassist William Parker, and pianist Craig Taborn, are all seasoned veterans of the N.Y.C. improvisation and free jazz scenes, but it's also true that two of these players hail from the experimental and post-bop scenes in the Detroit of the 1990s. Parker is the only New York native. What's happening here does have the decided feel of something else. Free jazz and free improv do mainly hail from — and thrive in — urban centers, but seldom have they felt this organic in the last decade or so. The title and the acoustic instrumentation — as well as the snapshots of various plants and flowers on the cover — all hint at the teeming life to be found inside this music that was recorded in performance at the Stone on June 19, 2008.

The brief improvisation that opens this set, called "Korteh Khah," features the rumbling bass strings of Parker, the scattershot rhythmic chant of Taborn, and the cymbal work of Cleaver, with assorted bells and percussion added to the mix. It doesn't get much more basic or organic than this as it unfolds; the piano notes are single notes with little or no sustain as Parker begins to play a pattern on the bass. But it's all so close to the bone, outside to be sure, but never harsh — in fact, this little number finds a groove before the nearly nine-minute "The Night" commences, with its sparse chord voicings, elongated held bass notes, and only minimal percussion until it unfolds in a mysterious structural labyrinth, where shimmering hints of melody and pronounceable rhythms seemingly appear. Taborn's piano finds traces of Jaki Byard's ghost in his harmonics and Parker bows, rubs, and pulls on his bass strings. Cleaver uses multiple elements besides his drums to begin to underscore the tale and interact with Parker to find a proper narrative, though Taborn keeps it loose and meandering. It is a stunning, gradually revealing track that showcases all the various strengths of this ensemble.

There are three ten-plus-minute improvisations here, including "Cranes," which begins with Cleaver and Parker's click-clack "rhythm'ning" at its commencement. The stop-start, halting stutter of free improv is certainly here, as is dissonance, but it holds no harsh edges, and its movement is never, ever static. Instead it flows; it never concerns itself with intensity — sometimes it finds it, and sometimes it remains meandering, slowly but surely from a coil into the open meadow of sound itself. So intent is the raw, primal aspect of rhythm in these pieces that one can forget that this is a "piano trio," because it is a rhythm section first: check the interlocking angles on "Not Unlike Number 10," with the interlocking groove of rim shots and Parker playing the wood on his bass in front of the piano, which fills in signatures with accents, a minor use of arpeggios, and contrapuntal percussive statements. The only tune to sound even remotely conventional in terms of a piano trio is "In Trees," which actually approaches moments of swinging post-bop, but even this is stretched to the breaking point. Farmers by Nature is not for the casual jazz fan. It gives up its secrets slowly, but the gems hidden in this sonic earth are plentiful, poetic, and remarkable. One can only hope this trio explores this terrain more in the future.

Biography

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '90s, '00s, '10s

Although jazz drummer Gerald Cleaver has been known in the Detroit area as a great musician and educator since the early '90s, he was not so well-known to listeners outside of the Midwest until an explosion of recordings released starting in 1999 brought his powerful and tasteful drumming to the attention of jazz listeners everywhere. Born and raised in Detroit, Cleaver became deeply involved with the jazz scene there, working with respected area musicians including bassist Ali Muhammad Jackson,...
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Farmers By Nature, Gerald Cleaver
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