by Susan Kepecs
This Saturday, April 6, rising young mainstream jazz pianist Gerald Clayton comes to town –the Town Center at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, to be precise – under the auspices of the Wisconsin Union Theater. I haven’t yet heard Clayton live, and recordings are no substitute for live jazz. But leave it to lazy writers to jump on a facile description of an artist and copy it all over the Internet. The New York Times has been consistent, calling Clayton “Oscar Peterson-like” since he emerged as a runner-up in the Thelonious Monk piano competition in 2006, at the age of 22. A Google search this morning for “Gerald Clayton, Oscar Peterson” turned up 205,000 hits.
Really? I listen to Clayton’s three albums and I think OK, sometimes there’s a blues progression in the mix, or a touch of Peterson-style swing. But Clayton really doesn’t sound much like the late Canadian pianist, whose big, warm, boogie-woogie swing was somethin’ else entirely from the cool, calm, cerebral, post-boppish style Clayton puts out. Still, there’s a link. Clayton’s the son of LA bassist / composer / educator John Clayton, whose own mentor was the late Ray Brown, Peterson’s bass player for many years.
The younger Clayton’s mentors run deep. Besides growing up in the jazz world he studied with master jazz pianist Kenny Barron and spent a couple years on the road with eclectic hard bop trumpeter Roy Hargrove.
Today Clayton’s got fingers in multiple pies. He works with his dad and uncle in the Clayton Brothers band, which has tons of twentieth-century swing. But Gerald’s a full-fledged denizen of the twenty-teens, plying the keys with the NEXT Collective, a jazz / hip hop outfit put together to showcase Concord’s millennial generation young lions.
As a leader, Clayton sounds like – well, himself. There’s a sophisticated, old-school – though open-ended – feel to his tunes. A few old-school standards dot his first two albums (Two-Shade, from 2010, and Bond, 2011), though all the tracks on his third, the just-released Life Forum, are Clayton’s, either alone or co-written with his collaborators. And like most versatile players, Clayton has a penchant for working in various formats. On Life Forum it’s a nonet, featuring his regular trio plus, among others, Gretchen Parlato on vocals and Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet. It’s got some spoken word laid over laid-back tracks, occasional blues lines mixed into his mostly modal approach, a sparky samba-fusion tune, and hints of the feathery-light touch epitomized on Miles Davis’ 1969 cool jazz fusion album In a Silent Way.
But Clayton appears here with his long-standing trio, which includes the similarly up-and-coming Milwaukee native Joe Sanders on bass and Justin Brown on drums. The intimate, stripped-down sound’s a good way to get to know these young blue bloods of bop.
Last week I had a chance to pop a few questions Clayton’s way.
CulturalOyster: You were born with a jazz silver spoon in your mouth, and you’ve risen very fast in the jazz world. What kind of an edge did your background give you?
Clayton: It was really a blessing. I was fortunate to have grown up seeing it so closely – mainly the lifestyle behind the music. Playing’s not a job, but a labor of love. Jazz is one big family. The musicians I used to see when I was growing up were so positive – there was always lots of love and hugs and everybody was always so happy to see each other. I associated that with the music.
But the rest of it is like everything else, there’s no real shortcut. You have to put in your time listening, transcribing, learning the language. It was helpful to have great answers and points of reference at home – whenever I needed to understand something about the music my dad was there to help me figure it out. I guess that was an edge, that there was always information at home. But it really does come down to personal motivation to learn the music and to speak the language that we speak.
CulturalOyster: You don’t sound like Oscar Peterson to me. Lets get past the mainstream media memes – how would you describe your style?
Clayton: I appreciate that you decided to look past the words that follow me around. The only thing that rings true is that Oscar was my first piano love. I really have tried to soak in as much music as possible. Our generation is about open-mindedness and allowing the music to go where it needs to go and to not have preconceived ideas about what it should and shouldn’t feel like. I draw on all my influences, but what I’m searching for is honesty and integrity in my music.
CulturalOyster: It’s interesting that a lot of millennial generation players are injecting hip-hop into the bop idiom. Despite the spoken word approach on the title track of Life Forum, I really don’t hear much hip hop in your mix. Why is that?
Clayton: I love hip hop. I definitely grew up in a generation where it was a very relevant part of black music expression. I’m not trying to make my music sound like hip hop, but I’m not steering away from it either. It’s really a big gumbo. Justin, my drummer, came from the church, and he’s had a lot more experience playing straight up hip hop than I have. It might be subtle, but he brings that flavor, and all of us love good hip hop.
CulturalOyster: Tell me more about your sidemen.
Clayton: They’re amazing. I met them in high school. We were all part of the high school band [the Grammy High School Big Band, which brings together students from across the country] – that’s where we met. I met a lot of young guys there. We kept in touch in college and then we all ended up in New York around the same time, five or six years ago. The three of us started playing together and we all live in the same apartment building, so we’ve had a chance to play together a lot and explore. They know how to make the music feel good. Justin’s a sponge – everything he hears he soaks up and internalizes. And Joe has these enormous ears, he hears so much and his harmonic concept is so far-reaching compared to a lot of bass players. We have a lot of respect for one another and we’re all tuned in to what each other contributes to the music.
CulturalOyster: When you come to Madison, are you bringing some trio arrangements of the Life Forum tunes?
Clayton: We’ll do some of the material from that. But when we’re playing shows we’re not thinking about the album. It’s about creating a set that flows the right way. We’ll draw on our repertory that’s three albums deep now, plus what we haven’t recorded. I promise to put it all together in way that’s captivating for the audience.