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Devin Gray/Gerald Cleaver: 27 Licks (Rataplan)

A review of the duo album from the two drummers

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Devin Gray and Gerald Cleaver: 27 Licks
The cover of 27 Licks by Devin Gray and Gerald Cleaver

Drummers Devin Gray and Gerald Cleaver have a connection that’s grounded not just in sound logic and percussive resonance but in the true spirit of amity. Having initially struck up a friendship at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music in 2006, they decided to take to the streets as their musical relationship evolved. In 2011 they set up shop in New York’s Union Square and began conversing through their kits. And that was just the beginning. Through the ensuing years they continued to strengthen their rapport, and this studio set, recorded in December of 2019, is a fine demonstration of how empathy can be shaped through freely developed improvisation.    

In seven concise statements and one lengthy panoramic summation, Gray and Cleaver coalesce into a malleable entity that can shift at will. The trance-inducing grooves and dovetailing syncopations of the title track lean in one direction; the gong-y meditations and sprint-and-scuffle attitude of “F Train Drain” ride a different track; and the click and clatter of “Headed to Barbès” takes its own unique course toward the titular Brooklyn venue. 

Further snapshots reveal additional insights. “Love Conquers Hate” is a shamanistic shaker song. “One for Bernie” is a scripture of scrapes. “The Long Roll Ahead” juxtaposes sensitive cymbal work against a press roll. And “Shenanigans” points to the incredible pliancy of this pair. Those who prefer the full picture to single scenes can take in all of their interactions under the heading of “Headbangers,” which runs for more than 20 minutes. But bigger isn’t always better.

Dan Bilawsky

Dan Bilawsky has been involved in jazz journalism for 15 years. His work has appeared in JazzTimes, JAZZed, and All About Jazz, among other outlets. In addition, he’s penned liner notes for artists on Red, Capri, HighNote/Savant, Ropeadope, and other respected imprints. A band director with 20 years of teaching experience, he holds degrees in music from Indiana University, the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, and Five Towns College.