Gerald Clayton switches up his game on this thrilling disc. He ups the conceptual ante and widens his sonic palette to include trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, saxophonists Logan Richardson and Dayna Stephens, and singers Gretchen Parlato and Sachal Vasandani. Immediately you sense the explicit new direction on the somber opening cut, “A Life Forum,” which features spoken-word artist Carl Hancock Rux spewing some philosophical ruminations about breaking through the ho-hums of everyday life and embracing the moment. Clayton wraps Rux’s ominous baritone voice with stark brass and vocal harmonies that unravel a luxurious melody, faintly recalling Herbie Hancock’s late Blue Note composition “I Have a Dream.” Once Clayton’s regular rhythm section (bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Justin Brown) lifts the music with a pneumatic buoyancy, the leader showcases his impressionistic approach to melody and piano improvisation. In all, the title track makes for a promising beginning.
Sure enough, Clayton delivers on that promise with the driving second composition, “Future Reflection,” notable for its charging horn and voice charts, zigzagging passages and Clayton’s suspenseful yet well-paced solo. The same sort of exhilarating sweep appears on “Some Always” and “Shadamanthem.” In other places, the music either quells—allowing listeners greater opportunity to focus on Clayton’s piano mastery, as on the quicksilver trio outing “Sir Third”—or decelerates, as on the glowing “Dusk Baby,” featuring Vasandani’s sanguine vocals.
The disc closes with the same gist of eminence, with the stark ballad “When an Angel Sheds a Feather,” featuring a bracing duet between Vasandani and Parlato, followed by a swinging hidden track enlivened by Stephens’ fantastic tenor work. Life Forum signals a new chapter in Clayton’s still-early career as a leader, especially in terms of his compositional reach. And it suggests that there are even greater things to come.