If you have not heard Gerald Clayton live, especially if you have not heard him live with Charles Lloyd, you may wonder what all the buzz is about. It’s not that Clayton’s records have been weak; four have received Grammy nominations. But he has never made an album that fully renders the revelation of hearing him in person on a good night.
Until now. Happening represents two firsts: Clayton’s Blue Note debut and his only recording at the Village Vanguard. It is not piano-centric; the band is a world-class two-saxophone quintet featuring Logan Richardson (alto), Walter Smith III (tenor), Joe Sanders (bass), and Marcus Gilmore (drums). But Clayton’s piano contributions, in their wild, free-spilling, lyrical aspiration, are consistently stunning.
The hallowed confines of the Vanguard inspire musicians to outdo themselves. There is a livid intensity to this album, captured in the excellent recorded sound of specialist Vanguard engineers Tyler McDiarmid and Geoff Countryman. Even moody pieces like “Envisionings” quickly find turbulence. Richardson is one of the lethal stealth altos in jazz, and on “Envisionings” his keenings become an overwhelming catharsis. Smith III is a more orderly improviser, but not always. Together, on “A Light,” they raise living hell.
There are two pieces by the rhythm section only. They are the first places people should go if they still doubt that Clayton is a badass. Bud Powell’s “Celia” is a 10-minute onslaught of virtuoso pianism. So is “Body and Soul,” although it is somewhat quieter and more devotional. It overflows with digressions, spontaneous compositions derived from the song. The interpretations of repertoire like this, as well as Billy Strayhorn’s F blues “Take the Coltrane,” reveal that these players, who function on the very leading edge of where jazz is right now, respect their history.