Fred Moten / Brandon López / Gerald Cleaver - Moten/López/Cleaver Music Album Reviews

Fred Moten / Brandon López / Gerald Cleaver - Moten/López/Cleaver Music Album Reviews
Critic and theorist Fred Moten joins bassist Brandon ​López​ and drummer Gerald Cleaver for a conceptually rich, politically weighty album that asks timeless questions without overexplaining.

In an interview included with his 1988 album Live in Vienna, Cecil Taylor struggled to define the boundaries of his music. The innovative, classically trained pianist had just released Chinampas, a full-length album of spoken-word poetry featuring yelps, screeches, chants, and other percussive sounds, but largely devoid of piano. Were these vocal pieces to be viewed as part of the same trajectory of free jazz that he helped define with his piano compositions? Or were they something else entirely, a new language even further uncoupled from the structural limitations of jazz? “I’ve always tried to be a poet more than anything else,” Taylor told the writer and photographer Spencer Richards. “...[The] music is primary, but everything is music once you care to begin to apply certain principles of organization to it.”

Fred Moten uses these lines to make the claim that poetry can function as a kind of musical system, one that, for Taylor and others, stands at the forefront of the Black avant-garde tradition. Moten, a poet, critic, theorist, and recent MacArthur Fellow, has spent roughly the last 20 years writing about music and poetry with conceptual rigor. His book In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition and his three-part consent not to be a single being book series synthesize the work of Karl Marx, Jacques Derrida, W.E.B. Du Bois, and others into a dizzying account of the fundamental irreducibility of Black expression to inscription technologies like magnetic tape, digital recordings, or written language. Moten’s poetry is similarly ambitious, deploying dense, reference-rich language with an economy and restraint that still feels personal. In 2019, the writer joined upright bassist Brandon ​López​ and drummer Gerald Cleaver for a one-off performance at the long-running Vision Festival in New York, and the three reconvened in 2020—in the midst of a global pandemic, and in the weeks following the George Floyd protests—to record their debut as a group. “For me, it was like a fanboy experience because I love their music and listen to it so much,” Moten said at a recent Guggenheim Museum panel. Like Cecil Taylor years before, the trio’s self-titled album pushes back against the formal limitations of jazz convention, expanding the scope of ​López​ and Cleaver’s improvisations with the totalizing perspective of Moten’s poetry.

The eight-minute opener, “the abolition of art, the abolition of freedom, the abolition of you and me,” plainly states the stakes of artmaking while recognizing that music alone can’t resolve the troubles it addresses. “Art don’t work for abolition/Art works for bosses like you and me,” Moten says. The statement becomes a deft point of entry, contesting his own self-awareness to prove how much still can be done. The track spirals over lurching pizzicato from ​López​’s bass and sparse percussion from Cleaver, making rapid references to the many people and places that have shaped Moten’s thinking. “Let’s work against royalty, like a Prince, formerly known as the artist/Let’s work against how art don’t work for abolition,” he says. A passionate defense of art’s emancipatory potential, the piece sets the tone for a heavy, conceptually rich collection that asks timeless questions without overexplaining.

While Moten’s poetry feels like the conceptual engine driving the album, it always functions in tandem with ​López​ and Cleaver’s improvisations. Pieces like the two-part “b jenkins” start from sparse instrumentals, as ​López​ paces across the fingerboard with increasing intensity. Named for Moten’s late mother, the tracks make oblique reference to the Great Migration and the hardships that ensued for generations of Black Americans alienated from any sense of place that they might call home. “Up and down the regular highway in every two-tone station/Passing through the cure, for preservation to unfold it all away,” Moten states. The poet broadly gestures at the kind of Black Internationalism taken up by writers like Cedric Robinson and C.L.R. James, even as he spends most of the tracks situating these ideas within the personal lives of those affected by the cold-blooded politics of space. These weighty concepts fall into the background, overtaken by quotidian images of lives lived in the shadow of systemic oppression. “The phonograph is also a photograph of movement and what it bears/You found dances waiting for dancers,” he says. With off-kilter drumming and relentless bass, the piece takes instrumental cues from free-jazz classics like Max Roach and Oscar Brown Jr.’s We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, reinforcing the trio’s political aspirations as they venture in their own direction.

It’s tempting to view Moten’s theoretical writing as a skeleton key that unlocks the meaning of his poetry, and while the two bodies of work overlap, there are limits to this approach. Midway through “the faerie ornithologie,” Moten flips a line about color field painting into a succinct condemnation of the “blood at the root” of abstract expressionism and modernism generally. While these words wouldn’t sound out of place in his first book, the line works in service of a broader meditation on the violence and brutality of the cultural economy, which mirrors the violence imposed by the state on Black people. “You don’t get to not see motherfucker, but what happens when you act like you do?/Somebody black and poor can’t breathe,” he states with a burning rage. Pointed and direct, the line lands with newfound intensity, using the language of protest to capture a bald-faced anger that’s largely absent from his other work.

While it’s possible to interpret these lyrics as a direct response to the George Floyd uprising and ongoing pandemic, Moten​/​López​/​Cleaver ultimately asks how these events fit within a broader history of Black struggle. Grounded in the present, each track looks backward, mining the wreckage of history for parallels in music, poetry, and visual art. Exhausted of reference, the album closes with a look at the “face” at the heart of the word “surface,” riffing on concerns about agency and personhood that have followed Moten since his first book. Rather than retread familiar theoretical territory, the writer leans into the track’s emotional weight as the music flattens out, punctuated by stretches of breathy silence. It’s a rare moment of recovery on an otherwise breathlessly complex album, one that finally brings its passion and its pain fully into focus.

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Fred Moten / Brandon López / Gerald Cleaver - Moten/López/Cleaver Music Album Reviews Fred Moten / Brandon López / Gerald Cleaver - Moten/López/Cleaver Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on April 25, 2022 Rating: 5


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