Gerald Cleaver, "Jackie's Smiles" (577 Records)
Detroit-born/NYC-based drummer Gerald Cleaver has been an integral figure in forward-thinking jazz for nearly 20 years, working with adventurous musicians such as Henry Threadgill, Wadada Leo Smith, Matthew Shipp, Miroslav Vitous, William Parker, and Terje Rypdal. As great as his work has been in this realm, few people likely expected Cleaver to come out with a full-on electronic-music album, as he's done with Signs—although he does claim to be influenced by Detroit techno.
Sounding more like something that you'd hear on the Warp or Mille Plateaux labels in the late '90s or early '00s, Signs is an excursion into fascinating abstract sound design. One track, "Tomasz," even evokes the beautifully naïve melodiousness of Dutch pioneers Tom Dissevelt and Kid Baltan while "Ferrous Past" sounds like an Alva Noto-esque elegy. "Radiator" could've come off a 12-inch on Rephlex Records, England's home of "braindance."
Oddly for a drummer, the tracks on Signs don't emphasize rhythms as much as they do unconventional textures and strange moods. But when they do appear, they're in the vein of IDM titans such as Aphex Twin and Autechre: muted, robust, oblong. It's shocking to realize, but one of the best electronic-music albums of 2020 is coming from a 56-year-old jazz drummer. Gotta love such an unlikely turn of events.
"Jackie's Smiles" emits radiantly rusty tones over a skewed, processional rhythm, and a gorgeous counter melody. Later, some clap-enhanced funk beats enter the fray. Overall, the track sounds like a cross between Haruomi Hosono's bizarre exotica spoof Cochin Moon and Detroit electro innovators Drexciya. I did not see this coming, but now that it's here, I'm overjoyed.