After I contacted drummer Gerald Cleaver last year about bringing Farmers by Nature to the Magic Triangle Jazz Series, we waited in vain for Craig Taborn to respond. With a deadline looming, Cleaver asked pianist David Virelles to play alongside him and bassist William Parker. Farmers by Nature is one of the premier piano trios in jazz; adventurous, telepathic, and commanding. How would the new configuration work? Virelles and Cleaver have limited shared playing experience. Virelles and Parker none at all.
On Thursday, February 27, a packed house of over 130 people at the Northampton Arts Trust Building found out. Over the course of 100 scintillating minutes, the three wove idea after idea into an evening-length tapestry of improvisatory magic. There was no pause for applause, no set list, no recognized melodies, no pre-concert conversation about the contour of the evening, just three master musicians listening and responding to each other with intensity and creativity.
The musicians represent three generations and three regions steeped in music history. The 68- year-old Parker is a life-long New Yorker. Cleaver, 56, grew up in jazz-rich Detroit, while Virelles, a youthful 38, was raised in Santiago de Cuba, on the island’s eastern end. Together they demonstrated the unique blend of laser attention and open mind required for free improvising to soar and transcend.
The music unfurled in spirals, constantly changing with a logic and continuity that held our attention, despite the free nature of the interaction. In place of strict meter, the band provided pulse and momentum. During one segment late in the proceedings, Parker repeated a driving rhythmic pattern that threatened to blow the roof off 33 Hawley St. At another moment, Cleaver dove into his bag of funk and produced hooks we could almost hang our hats on. For his part, Virelles probed and counterpunched, confounding expectations and keeping us on our toes.
William Parker, who has performed in the Valley dozens of times over the years, has been called the “philosopher king” of New York. He is a trickster, always at the ready with humor and a story. He wore overalls with bright red patches on both knees, clearly a farmer by nature. Despite moving a little more slowly than the last time I saw him, his playing was inventive and spritely. He used a good amount of slap bass technique and bowed while fingering the very top of his strings. He’ll be back on March 13, performing with Steve Swell’s Kende Dreams.
How would Virelles fit into a trio of his elders? He was humble and deferential off the bandstand, but not at all intimidated playing with these accomplished veterans. After all, he’s had substantial playing and recording experience with drum masters like Andrew Cyrille, Román Díaz, and Milford Graves, and has studied and performed with icons like Henry Threadgill, Wadada Leo Smith, and Steve Coleman. Virelles showed no hesitation, contributing strong, independent threads of sounds, creating more tension than release. Virelles belongs to a generation of Latin American pianists that play and improvise in many styles. The notion that Latin pianists only play in clavé went out with Hilton Ruiz, and the idea seems even more antiquated today.
Gerald Cleaver belongs to a small group of great jazz drummers in constant demand. I would love to see a year’s list of his gigs; it would provide a good overview of the current state of jazz. Although he nominally leads Black Host, Farmers by Nature and this trio, he has made his mark as a highly inventive, very dependable sideman with Chris Lightcap, Roscoe Mitchell, Joe Morris, Ellery Eskelin, Charles Gayle, Michael Formanek, Enrico Rava, Joe Lovano, Ivo Perleman, Mat Maneri, Jeremy Pelt and dozens more. When a drummer with chops dedicates himself to advancing every musical situation, you get an evolving aesthetic in a healthy scene.
Jazz musicians have long participated in the “gig economy;” most live the freelancers’ life. That can make scheduling difficult, and bands with stable personnel almost non-existent. But what the music loses in continuity, it gains in new configurations that deepen relationships between musicians, excites listeners with new sounds and pulls the music in unexpected directions. It’s novel by nature.