Gerald Clayton – Bond, The Paris Sessions (2011)

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photo: Ben Wolf

Like Joshua Redman, Ravi Coltrane, Anthony Wilson and all those Marsalis brothers, Gerald Clayton followed in his father’s footsteps to become an accomplished jazz musician in his own right. The son of bassist John Clayton and nephew of saxophonist Jeff Clayton, Gerald studied classical piano from the age of 6 all through high school before enrolling at jazz studies at the University of Southern California. While there, he’s studied under Billy Childs, Kenny Barron and Shelly Berg. He has gotten to work with Diana Krall, Roy Hargrove, Matt Slocum, Al Foster, Lewis Nash and Clark Terry. He’s also performed duo piano concerts with Benny Green, Barron, Mulgrew Miller, Hank Jones and others. Since around 2008, Clayton has reeled in enough notice to start winning various rising jazz star polls and in ’09 came his first album, Two-Shade, which was fan-financed through ArtistShare. The following year, he played piano on his father/uncle-led Clayton Brothers album New Song And Dance, and earned a Grammy nomination a piece for work done on both albums.

So, it’s clear that Gerald Clayton’s young career is on an upward incline.

Clayton, who turned 27 on Wednesday, continues on that roll with the release the day prior of Bond, The Paris Sessions. Carrying over the trio from Two-Shade (Joe Sanders, bass; Justin Brown, drums), the three worked to build upon that first album instead of going off in a different direction. The wisdom of this strategy pays off in this hefty set of sixteen tracks, combining Gerald Clayton compositions with one a piece from the rhythm section and a few select covers. Recorded in a studio in the French capital, the “bond” in the title points to the coherence among the three. Clayton has in Sanders and Brown his Jorge Rossy and Larry Grenadier (Brad Mehldau Trio), guys who are so in tune with each other throughout some very labyrinthine compositions and arrangements. Indeed, listening the three play together is often the most fun part about this record over just listening to Clayton play.

Beginning a record with an endlessly recycled tune like “If I Were A Bell” usually signals a dearth of ideas right from the get go, but not for Clayton. Without having to contort the familiar harmony, Clayton breathes new life into an old tune by feeding off a funky, fresh and syncopated bass line from Sanders. Clayton, distilling all the wide ranging influences he’s been exposed to, seems to know the right moment to get spunky like Monty Alexander and thoughtful like Barron. On this and other selections throughout the album, he uses the drums and bass as extensions of his own instrument (or is that vice versa?). Betraying maturity well beyond his years, he shows restraint even when the song reaches a crescendo near the end, hitting power chords only at the most effective, precise moments.

Thus, Clayton can take on the standards. Originals? This still-budding composer won those two Grammy nominations for compositions he wrote. His songwriting approach is very mindful of the generations who came before him, but casts it in an early 21st century mindset. “Tradition and innovation can peacefully coexist,” surmises Clayton, a declaration borne out in his songs. “Bond: The Cast,” is a inscrutable, nocturnal melody that sets along a certain path with little, delightful diversions, a revelation of Clayton’s delicately elaborate touch.

Clayton surprises us with other unexpected small gestures: an organ swell enters the otherwise light-footed “Major Hope” at the precise right time for the peak, then quietly fades out again; “Bond: The Release” unfolds like a classical piece, with a brief burst of lyric-less, male background vocals; twice he ushers in the start of melodic change by hollering out “ha!” on “3d,” a casual release contrasting with the highly composed song structure. Ultimately, though, the success of the album hinges on Clayton’s chops, such as the light-on-his-feet delicate prancing of “Bootleg Bruise” or the deft way he darts around and over the rugged terrain defined by the chart and Brown’s trap kit on “Hope,” or the or the affecting, spare solo piano for tribute to Hank Jones written by father John simply titled, “Hank.”

A young pianist with pristine technique, highly advanced compositional skills and obvious leadership abilities, BondThe Paris Sessions justifies all the hype he’s been getting. Released by EmArcy Records, this album should earn Clayton yet more poll wins, such as spots on those year-end “best of” album lists. And maybe a few more Grammy nominations.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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