Cleaver was born and raised on Detroit's West Side and began playing drums early thanks to the inspiration of his father, drummer John Cleaver, who may have held a day job but was a regular on the city's jazz scene by night. In addition to playing the kit, the younger Cleaver received formal musical training on violin and trumpet. While still in high school, the young drummer worked with respected area musicians including bassist Ali Jackson, trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, tenor saxophonist Donald Walden, guitarist A. Spencer Barefield, and reedsman Wendell Harrison, among others. An NEA Fellowship allowed him to study with drummer Victor Lewis; Cleaver then earned a music degree from the University of Michigan. During his years as a student, he met and formed a band with keyboardist Craig Taborn called the Tracey Science Quartet. Cleaver went on to become a jazz educator after graduating and taught in Detroit in the early '90s before joining the jazz faculty at the University of Michigan in 1995. In 1997 he both penned and played on the composition "Pilgrim's Progress" for bassist Rodney Whitaker's debut Hidden Kingdom on DIW. Taborn recommended the drummer to Roscoe Mitchell, who hired him to play in a trio with bassist Malachi Favors on The Day and the Night. Two years later, he appeared with Mitchell the Note Factory on the seminal ECM release Nine to Get Ready. Cleaver can be heard in a number of groups and settings from this period, including recordings by the Joe Morris Quartet, the Matthew Shipp Quartet, on bassist Chris Lightcap's leader debut Lay-Up, and Taborn's 2001 Thirsty Ear offering, Light Made Lighter. That same year, with his Veil of Names unit, Cleaver issued his own debut long-player, Adjust, on Fresh Sound New Talent. His sidemen included guitarist Ben Monder, violinist/violist Mat Maneri, bassist Reid Anderson, saxophonist Andrew Bishop, and Taborn.
Cleaver spent the next few years recording and/or touring with Mitchell the Note Factory, Lotte Anker, Mario Pavone, Charles Gayle, and more. 2007 proved a seminal year for the drummer. He played on no less than seven high-profile jazz recordings including Miroslav Vitous' Universal Syncopations, and Sylvie Courvoisier's Lonelyville, and issued his sophomore leader date Gerald Cleaver's Detroit, comprised entirely of his own compositions. The following year, Cleaver's star had fully ascended: He played on no less than a dozen albums in 2008 (an annual average he has more or less maintained since). He made his first appearance with trombonist Samuel Blaser's quartet on 7th Heaven, played drums in saxophonist J.D. Allen's trio for I Am I Am, and in Gebhard Ullmann's Basement Research for Don't Touch My Music. In 2009, Cleaver, bassist William Parker, and Taborn released the acclaimed debut by their Farmers by Nature project on Aum Fidelity. He also worked with Vitous again on the acclaimed ECM outing Remembering Weather Report, with Eric Revis on Laughter's Necklace of Tears, with Taborn and Anker on the studio outing Floating Islands, and with Michael Formanek on the celebrated The Rub and Spare Change (also on ECM).
Cleaver issued his third album for Fresh Sound New Talent in 2010: Be It as I See It featured a slew of players including Taborn, Bishop, Maneri, Tony Malaby, and singer Jean Carla Rodea; it drew positive critical notice across the globe. That same year, the drummer played in William Parker's Organ Quartet on Uncle Joe's Spirit House, with Pelt on Men of Honor, in pianist John Hébert's Trio for Spiritual Lover (the pair also teamed up on recordings by Taylor Ho Bynum and Rodrigo Amado that year). Farmers by Nature regrouped for Out of This World's Distortions in 2011. Cleaver began a years-long collaboration with saxophonist Ivo Perelman on The Hour of the Star, and played on recordings by Ellery Eskelin and Blaser, among others. The following year, Cleaver reprised his role with Pelt on the high-charting album Soul, in Formanek's studio group for Small Places, and with Perelman on several albums for Leo, including The Foreign Legion, that also included Shipp in the lineup.
By 2013, Cleaver had established a familiar group of players he worked with in various capacities. He continued to work with Perelman, Shipp, Hébert, and Bynum, but he also joined Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko's quartet for Wislawa and played on the Taborn trio's Chants (with bassist Thomas Morgan). The next year kicked off with Cleaver as a member of the intrepid quintet Plymouth for their self-titled debut on RareNoise. The band's other members included Morris and Mary Halvorson on guitars, Lightcap on bass, and Jamie Saft on organ and piano. Cleaver also joined Parker in playing on tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis' celebrated Okeh debut, Divine Travels, recorded the double-length Love and Ghosts with Farmers by Nature, and played on Mark Weinstein's Latin Jazz Underground. Back in 2013, Cleaver worked in Charles Lloyd's group for a live date in Wroclaw, Poland. The saxophonist's resultant album, Wild Man Dance, was drawn from that date and was issued on Blue Note in 2015. The drummer also played on Shipp's Our Lady of the Flowers, with Lightcap's Bigmouth on Epicenter, and with the Blaser quartet for Spring Rain. Somehow, Cleaver also found time to teach master classes in New York and Ann Arbor; he traveled and recorded for the remainder of the year.
In 2016, Cleaver's partnership with Perelman exploded: he appeared on all six of The Art of the Improv Trio volumes that year (with different third members), and on the quartet date Breaking Point and the quintet offering Octagon. He also played on Vitous' seminal The Music of Weather Report. The following year found Cleaver mostly touring and teaching, but he did find time to renew his partnership with Stanko on December Avenue, and to play with drummer Tomas Fujiwara on Triple Double and the Yelena Eckemoff Quintet for In the Shadow of a Cloud. In 2018, Cleaver and saxophonist Travis LaPlante formed the duo Subtle Degrees and recorded their debut album, A Dance That Empties. Back in 2016, the drummer had recorded in a French cave with Rova saxophonist Larry Ochs; their collaboration was issued by Rogue Art as Songs of the Wild Cave in October of 2018.
In 2019, Ochs and Cleaver teamed up again, this time in a trio with guitarist Nels Cline for What Is to Be Done on Clean Feed. Before the decade ended, Cleaver played with Lightcap on SuperBigMouth, and in a quartet co-led by Enrico Rava and Joe Lovano for the album Roma. In November, Sunnyside issued the archival date Violet Hour. The personnel in the freewheeling program, recorded in 2006, included saxophonists J.D. Allen and Bishop, Pelt on trumpet, Ben Waltzer on piano, and Lightcap on bass. Inspired since the '80s by innovations in electronic music made by his fellow Detroit natives, Cleaver entered the 2020s with Signs, a strictly electronic work, and Griots, which synthesized his machines with contributions from trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and pianist David Virelles. The 577 label released the former in 2020, and in 2021 jointly issued the latter on Positive Elevation and Meakusma. Between the two albums, Cleaver was heard on William Parker's Mayan Space Station and on the collaborative Welcome Adventure, Vol. 1, with saxophonist Daniel Carter, Parker, and Shipp. Cut on a single October day in 2019, it also produced 2022's Welcome to Adventure, Vol. 2; both were issued by 577 Records. ~ Thom Jurek & Andy Kellman, Rovi
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