Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Gerald Clayton: Before & After

The pianist is in the vanguard—and at the Vanguard

Gerald Clayton
Gerald Clayton (photo: Lauren Desberg)

“I live close to the ocean here in Los Angeles, so I’m surfing pretty much every day, and fortunately my family is close by—my folks, and my sister and brother-in-law had a baby last year. I’m very grateful for all that. I count my blessings all the time.” In a moment when positivity and gratitude are in short supply, pianist Gerald Clayton exudes both. He’s doing all right on all levels: health and spirit intact, and now, in mid-August, getting reacquainted with life on the road.

“Just last week I did my first touring,” he said by Zoom from his L.A. home, “a few things centered around the Newport Jazz Festival with Charles Lloyd and the Jazz Gallery All-Stars. We started in Detroit, went to New York a couple of days, and then up to Newport, came back and I did some concerts at Mezzrow with Melissa Aldana, Peter Bernstein, and Terence Blanchard. I was immediately hit with some travel hiccups: flight cancellations and all that. Welcome back to the grind! It was a bit of a readjustment. I had forgotten how unnatural it is to sit in an airplane seat for six hours. But it was a good reminder that the bandstand is really sweet too. There’s a joy that’s definitely there now in the music. There’s a youthful excitement that’s like the first time out, you know?”

Though it was easy to fall into the domestic routine of the last year-and-a-half— “embracing the silver lining,” Clayton puts it—he stayed busy. Most notably, he created original music for filmmaker Sam Pollard’s standout documentary MLK/FBI. His participation began in late 2019, only a few months before lockdown.

“That was my maiden voyage in the film score world, and it was an honor to work on such an important project with Sam, who’s intelligent, thoughtful, and has such a deep well of experience. It was good I could do the bulk of the work at home. They had a starting vision of the kind of music that was appropriate for each scene—texture, instrumentation—so I basically sat with the footage and tried to create ideas. I’d just press record on GarageBand, since I’m really on the analog level with all that stuff. I still rely on the engineers to play their role, just show me where the piano is!

“The real challenge was finding the language to describe what Sam was looking for musically, which can be very different from how musicians communicate. A lot of it was like, ‘Give it more drama here…’ or ‘Make it more open,’ and I’d have to figure out, ‘Is that a texture issue, or tempo? Or a key center issue?’ But yeah, it was fun.”

So the score came together primarily during 2020? “Yes—last summer we had the music together and booked a studio to put together the final instrumentation. And that was the first time I worked with other musicians since the lockdown began. Everybody was masked and trying to be safe about it.”

Clayton’s most recent album is Happening: Live at the Village Vanguard. Recorded in April 2019 and released in late summer ’20, it stands as a stark and solid portrait of the pianist as bandleader, composer, and performer. It also serves as a reminder of a vibrant New York City jazz scene that’s still in recovery mode, and how even the most sacred of spaces remain in peril; the Vanguard was closed to the public for 18 months beginning in March 2020. The outlook seems to be getting brighter now, though—at the time this article was published, that venerable West Village jazz club was scheduled to reopen at last on Tuesday, September 14.

Happening is obviously the inspiration for the musical choices in this Before & After, which was Clayton’s first. It didn’t take him long to catch on.

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the songs in this Before & After session:

1. Jon Batiste
“Soulful” (Chronology of a Dream: Live at the Village Vanguard, Verve). Giveton Gelin, trumpet; Patrick Bartley, alto saxophone; Tivon Pennicott, tenor saxophone; Batiste, piano; Phil Kuehn, bass; Joe Saylor, drums; Nêgah Santos, percussion. Recorded in 2018.

BEFORE: I think I know who it is. I know the tune—it’s called “Soulful,” by Roy Hargrove. It was written after I was in his band. For a minute, I was like, “Wait, is that Roy?” It’s not, but it’s clearly a tribute to him. I’m trying to guess which of the recent tributes this might be. Everybody’s playing beautifully. I’m a bit stumped. I hear a nice sound, a nice grip, nice touch on piano. Not to say that there’s no personality or character in that piano solo, but I’m hearing somebody more outlining Roy’s tune.

AFTER: Of course, I know this. But it shows I’ve been surfing too much and have some catching up to do with my music listening! I was thinking it was going to be Sullivan [Fortner] or someone else in the family. I totally should have guessed that it was Jon. It sounds really wonderful, and they play it really well. They’re showing love to Roy for sure.

2. McCoy Tyner
“Mr. Day” (McCoy Tyner Plays John Coltrane: Live at the Village Vanguard, Impulse!). Tyner, piano; George Mraz, bass; Al Foster, drums. Recorded in 1997.

BEFORE: Right out the gate, my first guess would be that this is McCoy. I’m definitely getting a McCoy vibe. It’s a touch thing, the way he hits the piano. If you had the chance to see him, there was almost a flat-fingered thing he did, but not anything insensitive. His touch can be feathery soft in a way, and there’s a separation in the notes. Also, the language is just McCoy—he’s an architect of that language. So many cats have tried to cop that and get inside of it. There’s a fieriness and a lot of strength to McCoy. There’s also the direction of the lines, followed by a big, strong chord in the left hand.

Based on the sound of this recording, it’s definitely not the ’60s and not the ’70s, but probably the ’80s or even ’90s. Till the last day, he always carried that same strength and fire. But you can hear how he was an older, wiser man in the later stages, like here. Also I’m hearing the bass is a little more direct to the amp. I got to see McCoy in L.A. when I was a teenager and Charnett Moffett was in the band. My guess is that’s Charnett, because it’s not Gerald Cannon, who was in the group towards the end. It sounds like it could be an older cat on drums. I’ve heard this tune before, but I don’t know it by name.

AFTER: Oh, wow. That’s at the Vanguard too. Okay, cool. I’m starting to see the theme here. Yeah, yeah, yeah! It’s undeniable McCoy, and that’s Al Foster. I should have known that. I’ve gotten the chance to play with Al a few times and yeah, what a sound. I know you said don’t apologize for missing anyone, but I’m going to apologize for that one.

 3. George Adams-Don Pullen Quartet
“Diane” (Live at the Village Vanguard, Soul Note). Adams, tenor saxophone; Pullen, piano; Cameron Brown, bass; Dannie Richmond, drums. Recorded in 1983.

BEFORE: [Listens intently through most of piano solo] This is a great choice. It’s really… [Listens more] You got me. It’s hard to identify who exactly it is, but I’m hearing all these things that remind me of other cats. At first I was like, “Is that Cedar [Walton]?” But I don’t think it’s him, especially now that the piano player’s expressing himself in a wilder way, I guess you could say. There’s a bluesy element, and there’s this mixture of languages, from the blues to pushing it out. It’s clearly something from the ’70s, maybe ’80s, partially because of that bass sound, which was the first time cats were plugging in. Maybe it’s a more obscure piano player I wouldn’t immediately think of, like a James Williams or a Donald Brown. I don’t know that area as well. I’m a bit stumped. But I’m guessing it’s a live at the Village Vanguard record—you can give me a point for that! [Laughs]

Here’s a hint—it’s a Mingus tune they’re playing.

Yeah, it has some of his personality for sure. The way it starts in one area and then shifts totally, in an almost quirky kind of way, like you’re in a new part of the forest all of a sudden.

AFTER: Okay. George Adams and Don Pullen—that’s definitely not home base for me, but I know plenty of cats have pulled my coattails to this: “You gotta check out some George Adams, Don Pullen.” What year is this? It has a very New York sound to it. It does carry the sound of the city. Maybe that’s another reason I’m just not super-familiar with it. But it really sounds like what I could imagine hearing, walking into the Vanguard and catching that caliber of music, that expression, the things they were exploring in that period, in the ’70s and ’80s, still carrying on the values of the ’60s—stretching, feeling that freedom to do those [piano] glissandos. Wow, man—thank you for another thing to put on my list.

4. Fred Hersch
“We See” (Sunday Night at the Vanguard, Palmetto). Hersch, piano; John Hébert, bass; Eric McPherson, drums. Recorded in 2016.

BEFORE: I have like one guess and a lot of observations about this. Is it by any chance, the Kenny Werner Trio? [Listens] No, no. But some of the rhythmic stuff that he or she’s doing with this rearrangement of this Thelonious Monk tune, with the time-signature slickness, made me think maybe it’s Kenny with Ari Hoenig. Now I didn’t quite think it was them. There’s something about it that’s clearly not ’60s, ’70s or ’80s—I feel like it’s in this age, right? At first I was like, “Is this a Geri Allen thing?” Definitely not Geri herself, maybe Geri-inspired. I like the particular way the cats are interacting with one another, which is something you won’t necessarily find in areas of this music now. I mean, it does feel like a bit of time traveling, since I know that cats are now beyond playing this way, like this has been … explored, you know, so now maybe you wouldn’t find it. But I love it. Everybody’s playing great and it sounds personal, not corny or anything, which is a hard thing to do: rearrange someone like Monk, when you know you’re going up against a lot of people who’ll say, “Why mess with the original recipe?” Wait, is this Fred Hersch?

AFTER: I got it before you put up the album cover—it counts! I should have known right away it was Fred because of that solid left hand. Fred is a genius of that left-hand/right-hand brain thing. The strength of that left-hand stuff, and the bridge, should have thrown his name up in the mix even earlier. And the Vanguard connection, because that’s Fred’s home. In fact, he was part of the process of picking out the pianos at the Vanguard, him and Bill Charlap. You know, I should retract my statement about this being something that would happen at an earlier time since Fred is an architect of that time period when this idea was being explored. He’s obviously carrying it with him today and it doesn’t sound dated in any way. It’s something only he can play that way. It’s a reflection of his mastery of time—again, that left-hand/right-hand genius, the idea you can be rooted in one place but stretch out simultaneously. What a master he is.

“There’s a recording somewhere out there of me doing some radio gig where I pretty much cop this exact [Jason Moran] arrangement of ‘Body and Soul.’”

5. Jason Moran
“Body and Soul” (The Bandwagon, Blue Note). Moran, piano; Tarus Mateen, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums. Recorded in 2002.

BEFORE: [Immediately] Okay, I’ll get at least a brownie point for knowing right away that’s the great Jason Moran and Bandwagon, with Nasheet Waits and Tarus Mateen. That’s a very hip arrangement of “Body and Soul”—I loved that record when it came out. I was in my early college years. I graduated high school in 2002, same year as this recording. You can imagine at that time, Jason was a leader of all those cats of that generation that we all looked up to. He was able to take an old tune like “Body and Soul” and find this magical vamp zone in it, and dip in and out of it, bringing in elements of hip-hop and other black American music expression that are now all totally welcome at the table. His embracing of the vamp, the loop—that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude, just stay there and serve the groove—there’s complete freedom to do that. That felt so new back then.

Now, it’s still the same blank canvas and openness that the quote-unquote “jazz” context has. It still carries some of the swag and the emotions we would associate more with hip-hop expression. I think there’s a recording somewhere out there of me doing some radio gig where I pretty much cop this exact arrangement of “Body and Soul.” [Laughs] So thank you, Jason, for leading the way and letting us youngbloods lean on you. He’s been a guiding light for all of us for years.

6. Geri Allen / Charlie Haden / Paul Motian
“Fiasco” (Live at the Village Vanguard, DIW). Allen, piano; Haden, bass; Motian, drums. Recorded in 1990.

BEFORE: This is killing. I love it. Again, I’m a bit out of my comfort zone. I’m more of a visitor to this type of expression, I guess you could say. It’s not Oscar Peterson live at the Village Vanguard! [Laughs] This is part of what I learned from living in New York for 10 years, getting to go to the Vanguard and see this style of music in person, learning to love cats like Andrew Hill or Cecil Taylor, that lineage.

There’s a pool of cats I’m thinking, but the first guess I’ll throw out is Geri Allen, partly because the playing goes out, and also because I heard semblances of Herbie [Hancock] influence in there, all of which I associate with Geri. Maybe it’s someone like Geri. Did you give me two Jason Morans in a row just to mess with me? [Laughs] I’m also trying to place it by the sound of the instruments. Again, there’s this uniquely magical sound the Vanguard has even when you have a bass that’s plugged in, it still sounds so close to those records we know from the ’50s and ’60s. That room has its own special sound.

No surprise that you chose to do your first live album at the Vanguard.

[That] has to do with how iconic and sacred a place it is in this art form, all of these records you’re playing and the other ones out there. The honor of having the words “Live at the Village Vanguard” on an album with your name—that’s something I’ve dreamed about since I was in high school, when I was hip to only a small fraction of the great music recorded there. I think the north star of my reasoning for doing it there had to do with making a live record at all. Previous records I’d done in the studio captured a certain thing, but it’s not quite as close to the truth of what we do night after night, playing for a room full of people.

The Vanguard idea is definitely a shared sentiment. It’s the holy grail. When anyone goes to New York, that’s always one of the first places you check out. And it hasn’t been tainted over time. It’s not about the food, which they don’t have, and you’re not here for good drinks. The Vanguard said no to streaming music up until we were in a global pandemic. You’re here for the music, and if you’re not bringing the right energy as an audience member, they’ll kick you out or won’t let you in. It’s here in service of the music—folks in a room underground, where musicians are trying their best to reach for the heavens when they play.

AFTER: Charlie Haden and Paul Motian—I should have known. That’s awesome. I’ve seen this, and must’ve heard it too, but it’s not constantly on my playlist. It should be.

Ashley Kahn

Ashley Kahn is a Grammy-winning American music historian, journalist, producer, and professor. He teaches at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, and has written books on two legendary recordings—Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane—as well as one book on a legendary record label: The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. He also co-authored the Carlos Santana autobiography The Universal Tone, and edited Rolling Stone: The Seventies, a 70-essay overview of that pivotal decade.