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Gerald Clayton: To the Bopcave

Gerald Clayton

During his 10-night residency at the Umbria Jazz Festival in the picturesque medieval hill town of Perugia, Italy, pianist Gerald Clayton created a buzz during his nightly set in the Rocca Paolina. An intimate space housed in the catacombs of a 16th-century stone fortress, the Rocca Paolina was affectionately dubbed “the cave” by fellow musicians who showed up at the popular late-night hang. Word spread from day one about this impressive young cat who conveyed a kind of poise and sophistication that belied his 24 years.

And while the long dreadlocks piled high on his head may have suggested some kind of cutting-edge reggae-meets-hip-hop jazz sensibility, Clayton’s refined touch, beautiful sense of dynamics and natural ease with swinging is steeped in a classy old-school tradition of jazz as practiced by the likes of Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, Hank Jones and other keyboard elders. And yet, with his highly interactive trio of fellow youngbloods Joe Sanders on bass and Justin Brown on drums, Clayton did indulge at times in a postmodern deconstructivist aesthetic, as on stretched-out renditions of Chick Corea’s “Tones for Joan’s Bones” and Monk’s “Evidence,” while maintaining a stronghold on the swing factor during his engaging sets at the cave. For one memorable encore, Clayton performed a solo gospel medley of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Gotta Travel On,” the title track of a 1966 Ray Bryant album that has a prime spot in Clayton’s iPod.

“I try to draw upon all the music that I love, all the different styles I love,” says Clayton. “That includes classical, Erroll Garner and Hank Jones. I’ve listened to so much of the old stuff and I think that might come through sometimes in my playing. I always want to show respect to the music that inspired me and that I love so much, but I don’t feel like I want to just stay there. I think music should definitely keep growing and moving. But I think it’s important to get rid of the distinctions between genres and just think about expression and honesty.”

Clayton’s big showcase moment during the Umbria Jazz Festival came while opening for Herbie Hancock at the huge outdoor Arena Santa Guiliana before a crowd of more than 5,000. He won over that throng just as easily as he charmed the 50 or so patrons each night back at the cave, with winning originals like his intricate, polyrhythmic romp “Trapped in a Dream,” the uncommonly delicate and lyrical “Sunny Day Go” and the vibrant “Scrimmage.” And he thrilled the audience with an encore in which he artfully melded a snippet of Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 2” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark.”

The son of bassist-arranger John Clayton and nephew of alto saxophonist Jeff Clayton, Gerald was born in the Netherlands and grew up in Los Angeles, where he attended the jazz studies program at the University of Southern California. He first appeared on record on the Clayton Brothers’ 2005 recording Back in the Swing of Things. “I grew up listening to their music, and it feels like home,” he says. “I was fortunate to see the love behind the music, see the dress rehearsals and just see how these grown men were coming together and giving each other hugs and showing so much love, just happy to be playing music. It’s a side of music that other people may not get to see as closely as I did, and I think that definitely attracted me to the jazz lifestyle.”

In 2006, Clayton placed second in the Thelonious Monk Piano Competition and that same year played on recordings by Diana Krall (a close friend of the Clayton family who babysat Gerald when he was a little kid), Roberta Gambarini and Michael Bublé. After moving to New York in 2007, Clayton did a week at the Village Vanguard with drummer Lewis Nash and subsequently toured with trumpeter Roy Hargrove. “It’s been a great experience getting to travel the world with Roy and have the group grow naturally,” he says. “Roy is one of those bandleaders who leads by example. Every night he hits so hard. He’s just spilling his heart every time he plays. He’s all about the music, and I learned a lot from being around him.”

He also points to pianist Kenny Barron as being a major influence. “I studied with him for a year at the Manhattan School of Music. He taught me a lot about patience and how to relax at the piano. I think he’s probably got the best time of any pianist I’ve ever seen, and it’s just because he’s so calm at the piano. It’s a very Zen-like thing that he does, and that’s something I’ve taken to heart.”

Clayton appears on the Clayton Brothers’ latest, Brother to Brother (ArtistShare). With Two Shade, his upcoming debut on the ArtistShare label scheduled for a December release, the gifted young pianist-composer is now coming into his own as the leader of a remarkably tight trio. “We actually met in high school,” he explains. “We were all chosen to be part of the Grammy big band, an organization that was based in Los Angeles but included high school players from all over America. We continued to cross paths through our educational experiences and when we all landed in New York just over a year ago, we decided to put something together.”

Since then, they’ve been creating a buzz around Manhattan, just as they did in the cave in Perugia.

Originally Published