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Artist in Residence: The Gerald Cleaver Group at Towson University’s Center for the Arts, Dec. 4-8

December 8, 2010

The Bill and Helen Murray Jazz Residency has proven itself a major addition to the Maryland jazz community. Twice a year the program brings in an established jazz musician—not a star necessarily, but someone who has earned the respect of critics and other musicians—for a week-long residency at Towson University. Past guests have included Ralph Alessi, John Hollenbeck, and Towson alumni Ellery Eskelin and Drew Gress.

This residency is good not only for the Towson students, who benefit from a week’s worth of workshops, but also for local jazz fans, who get to hear two concerts—one with the guest artist’s regular band and one with the students. This semester, the resident musician is drummer Gerald Cleaver, who was born and raised in Detroit and now lives in New York but has strong Maryland ties thanks to his membership in Michael Formanek’s quartet. Formanek, who teaches at Peabody and lives in Towson, returned the favor Saturday night by anchoring an all-star quintet when the Gerald Cleaver Group kicked off the week-long residency with a show at Towson University’s Center for the Arts.

The concert began with a 50-minute suite of four Cleaver compositions, often pitting the furious aggression of Formanek’s upright bass and Andrew Bishop’s tenor sax against the calming, sustained notes of Dave Ballou’s cornet and Jean Carla Rodea’s soprano voice. Rodea’s wordless vocals functioned like a third horn, one with resonant tone and sure pitch. She led the transition into the suite’s second tune, “Little Black Bell,” her soothing lines reinforced by Ballou’s muted trumpet but challenged by Bishop’s chattering soprano sax and Formanek’s clattering bass. Holding these juxtapositions together was Cleaver’s drumming, controlled rolls and patterns that linked the tense understatement of Ballou’s playing with the rambunctious overstatement of Bishop’s. The suite’s final piece, “Hover,” climaxed with Cleaver’s unaccompanied drum solo, which triggered electronic chirping from a nearby laptop.

After this long suite filled with freewheeling improvisation, the evening shifted to three structured, rewarding compositions: Cleaver’s easygoing swing number “22 Minutes,” his uptempo post-bop romp “Going Home,” and Ornette Coleman’s “What Reason Could I Give,” the only piece that allowed Rodea to sing actual lyrics.

All events are open to the public; the workshops are free, but the concerts are ticketed. For more information, e-mail The next Bill and Helen Murray Jazz Residency features Drew Gress May 9-13, 2011.

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  • Sgurwitz1

    Gerald Cleaver is awesome and the concert last night (Dec. 8) with the Towson students was wonderful. The students are very talented and when there were two drummers on stage, Cleaver and student Ben Zurier, the sound was great. All of the students were wonderful: Brian Brunsman (bass), Justin Taylor (piano), Dan Ryan (guitar), Kate Gillis (vocals), Matt Rynes (clarinet & saxophone), Darius Jones (trombone) and Patrick McAvinue (violin). Thank you to Dave Ballou and Bill and Helen Murray for developing such an excellent hjazz program at Towson.

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