Devin Gray & Gerald Cleaver – 27 Licks (Rataplan Records, 2020)

Devin Gray & Gerald Cleaver – 27 Licks (Rataplan Records, 2020)

May 15, 2021 0 By Marcello Nardi

Notwithstanding a drum duet, 27 licks is all about motivic and thematic movement, despite no melodic instrument is involved. Well, not exactly no melodic instrument involved, as both Devin Gray and Gerald Cleaver manipulate their drum kit to create flowing melodies, sometimes clearly hearable and distinct, or rather implicit, otherworldly and almost perceptible. That’s an array of subleties, a meeting of uncoscious depths that has been honed through the multiple years of mentorhip and complicity between the two, rendered through deceiving elegance and swift interplay.

Devin Gray and Gerald Cleaver embody the quintessential of New York-based avant jazz, despite the former was born in Maine and the latter in Detroit. Two cultures and two generations of recognized and respected players meet. Cleaver has built, especially in the last twenty years, a reputation of one the leading jazz drummers, capable of bringing his well identifiable sound through the spectrum ranging from abstract, free jazz improvisation through mainstream styles, making no difference he was playing with such different musicians as Craig Taborn, Chris Lightcap, Enrico Rava, Joe Morris, Ivo Perelman, William Parker or Matthew Shipp, to name a few. Devin Gray casually met his future mentor when Michael Formanek asked if he could lend his drum kit, and only later realised that same kit was destined to one of his idols. Gray is now an estabilished drummer, regularly collaborating with the likes of Ellery Eskelin, Dave Ballou, Chris Tordini, Kris Davis, Chris Speed, basically the who-is-who of New York’s avantgarde.

They started playing in 2011 and this album captures snippets from their usual duo routine, in a free and flowing modality, which they deem as their ‘just another day’. Two pleasantly attuned musicians, who show since the very early bars of 27 licks how they plan to embark in a quest together. A lush, toe tapping caribbean rhythm is counterpointed by a subtle cymbal work and witty use of the percussions in the early bars, with the accents switfly and shrewdly moving back and forth between the two and between the first and second beats of the bars. There’s immediately a sense of an overarching melody popping here and there, whether it could be an energetic bass line by Chris Lightcap or the twisted and angular keys of Aruán Ortiz. The cymbal work, ecompassed by the snare beats, creates a pensive and forebonding subtext, until in the very last minutes the two manage the volume decrease in a amazingly slow way. 

Building up from a metallic percussive dialogue, F Train Drain progressively morphs in a snare drum duet with increasingly hobbling and gallopping intensity. This piece starts out mellow while keeping you cool because you’re still on time -says a Devin Gray referring to travelling on a train (he must have never travelled to Italy in his life, by the way), but as the minutes pass so does the intensity of your anxiety, building and building.

Since the two started playing, the streets of New York have been frequently their stage, and similarly they music is imbued in the life and the politics. So The Long Roll Ahead, with its longlasting snare drum roll, that extends for over three minutes, only counterpointed by a an explorative use of the cymbals, reminds Gray of the unfortunate anti-climatic politics. One for Bernie, whose title explains itself quite easily, is dubbed not only for Bernie Sanders, but also for Zipper’s Velcro: though let’s be real, having both of them existing in everyone’s daily lives is definitively bringing quality positivity to our world -says Gray. An almost trumphant paena to the nation, disguised in the dialogue between scratched cymbals, the track suddenly seems to quote a July 4th march at 0.22. And again the political charge of the dialogue is represented in Love Conquers Hate, dedicated to what would become the November 6th 2019 election Friday: the shakers represent both pre and post election nerves as well as the excitement of the news -again quoted in the press kit. The shakers dialogue shows a sense of longing, occasionally added by the sublety and intimate caresses over the drum. There’s an almost ritual meeting, a sort of secular prayer for the communities to meet in this music.

When I listen to Gerald & myself improvising together on 2 drum sets, I’m reminded of our over 15 years spent talking about life. When we play it’s always a wonderful comfortable and lucky musical conversation to be able to have -praises Gray. The dialogue between the two is so intimate, that each of them completes the other with such musicality, that it’s often hard to disguise two players are on the stage, rather than one.


27 Licks – Devin Gray & Gerald Cleaver

1.27 Licks 03:40
2.F Train Drain 04:06
3.Headed to Barbès 02:44
4.Love Conquers Hate 04:07
5.One for Bernie 02:53
6.The Long Roll Ahead 03:41
7.Shenanigans 01:39
8.Headbangers 20:57

Devin Gray & Gerald Cleaver – drums