Gerald Cleaver & Violet Hour: Live at Firehouse 12 (Sunnyside)

A review of the drummer-led sextet's album recorded in New Haven

Gerald Cleaver & Violet Hour, Live at Firehouse 12
The cover of Live at Firehouse 12 by Gerald Cleaver & Violet Hour

If you were lucky enough to have caught drummer Gerald Cleaver’s Violet Hour ensemble at one of its gigs 15 or so years ago, you know the sextet was jake in the vehemence department. The Gerald Cleaver’s Detroit album, recorded at Brooklyn’s Barbès in 2006, illustrates the group’s collective hard-bop charisma. This new disc from a New Haven gig of the same era makes their brawn even more obvious. Everywhere you turn, ardor carries the day.

The Motor City native was a recent New York arrival when he built this band of bassist Chris Lightcap, pianist Ben Waltzer, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, tenor player JD Allen, and reed whiz Andrew Bishop. His love of trad swing and its ever-mutating offshoots found him blending modernist twists into the string-of-solos architecture that helped define the hard-bop realm. From the tempo-setting snare cracks of “Pilgrim’s Progress” on, Live at Firehouse 12 is ablaze with exclamation, its force increasing with every new exchange of ideas. The ball gets moved quickly here, and there’s lots of behind-the-back passing, three-point swishes, and full-court razzle-dazzle. The animation suits the tunes, a clutch of deeply legible themes the group bends in all sorts of ways. 

Bishop’s use of bass clarinet, Pelt’s harmonic savvy, and the leader’s design vision occasionally converge to make the record’s temperament seem like an unholy blend of Eric Dolphy’s Live at the Five Spot and Clifford Brown and Max Roach’s Live at Basin Street. Allen’s poetic aggression on “Silly One,” Lightcap’s traversing on “Tale of Bricks,” some sweet ’n’ sour filigree by Bishop in unexpected spots—when mixed with Cleaver’s ferocious pulse, it all blossoms into a must-hear document of early-aughts Gotham creativity.

Preview or download Live at Firehouse 12 on Amazon!

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Jim Macnie

Jim Macnie is a music writer who contributes to DownBeat and blogs at Lament For a Straight Line. He’s been working in digital media since since 2000, initially as VH1.com’s Managing Editor and, currently, as a Senior Producer and Editor at Vevo. He enjoys Little Jimmie Dickens, Big Joe Turner and Medium Medium.