(Emarcy / Pgd)
May 10, 2011
There are many sides to the twenty-seven year old pianist Gerald Clayton. It was roughly seven years ago, when we first met under the most inconspicuous of circumstances. The venue was a modestly-sized living space on a college campus in Philadelphia. I, as eager spectator, and he, as accompanying performer, took our respective places for this comfortable listening session. As he contributed to one of R&B’s most overlooked artists, I failed to recognize his complimentary genius. The introduction of myself and Gerald Clayton took place on the opening track of Teedra Moses’ Complex Simplicity. But that introduction would not be are last soiree. Most recently, I had the opportunity to share another moment with the artist whose lineage stretches back beyond his own years. Stepping away from his earlier persona as an R&B melody maker, Clayton took his seat upon the pianist’s bench to lend his talents to one of my favorite releases of the year, Ambrose Akinmusire’s When The Heart Reemerges Glistening. Today, I sit again with my old friend as he embarks on another avenue of musical expression.
Bond: The Paris Sessions can be aptly described as a mixture of everything necessary to create the perfect jazz album. In one instance, Clayton is reawakening the collective memory banks of his audience using timeless standards from the canon of jazz with results so rich in vitality that they would seem as if imagined only yesterday. And in the very next moment, he chooses to present his own compositions, whose sophistication far outreaches his own short-lived existence in the world of music. But where Clayton truly excels is in his impeccable virtuosity. In many ways, technical brilliance is an intangible concept. Attempting to concretize something as abstract as art is considerably an exercise in futility. So when truly attempting to understand the giftedness of Clayton and most importantly his music, we can only go on how it makes us feel. And if nothing else, this project is full of emotion.
The album begins with the Frank Loesser classic, “If I Were A Bell.” From Miles Davis to Amel Larrieux, this song has been recorded by countless individuals and yet, Clayton’s interpretation leaves an indelible mark amongst the rest. Fitted in absolute reticence, the song begins as a solitary display of Clayton, whose bell-like posturing is befitting of the song’s namesake. Within this simplicity, a subdued temperament takes shape thematically. As the song moves forward, however, a semblance of the song’s traditionally light tone begins to be explored. But even in doing so, the ensemble maintains that same initial reservation, providing the song with a newfound anxiousness. There is no denying Clayton’s reverence of traditional jazz archetypes. And yet, this cover exemplifies the very real understanding that he refuses to be a slave to them.
Exemplifying his prodigious compositional skills, the album moves along with “Bootleg Bruise,” one of the album’s more stirring selections. Clayton begins the song with a starkly percussive feel, stylistically approaching the touch of Ahmad Jamal. It succeeds in painting an eerily haunting portrait for its listeners. The trio then segues into a sound that can only be defined as controlled aggression. It’s a masterful display of rhythm versus melody. The urgency of Clayton’s piano strokes are complimented by the technically sharp display put on by drummer Justin Brown. With this, Clayton leaves no room for interpretation. His compositional work stands boldly alongside the time-tested standards of jazz yesteryears.
Returning to the classics, Clayton reprises the enduring Jerome Kerns’ composition “All The Things You Are.” This interpretation is more of a melee than anything else. Turning a blind eye to the traditional opening sequence, the trio instantly engages the crux of the song with an attractive franticness, giving the song a whole new meaning. Despite this odd redirection into the realm of spritely overtures, the song remains calm. Once again, Clayton manages to splash his own personality into music often mired in traditionalism.
Clayton concludes the album with a composition from his multitalented father John Clayton. Titled “Hank,” the song is one of the few solo performances by Clayton on the project. In the waning moments of this musical journey, we find him at his most endearing. With a subtle texture, the song is simplistic in nature and yet, carries a hint of optimism. Even in its modesty, there is an inherent uplifting quality in this song that makes it the proper conclusion to a well-orchestrated project.
While I jest about a fictional friendship between myself and the artist Gerald Clayton, his music genuinely gives the sort of introspection inherent in good art. When you listen to this project, you will feel as if you are learning something about the man himself, beyond his music. He is, without a doubt, a student of music. His veneration of classical jazz idioms is not only irrefutable, but, above all, highly commendable. But I find myself most appreciative of his blatant disregard for the conservatism that is often attached to these tropes. Whether it is a selection from the Kern songbook or a one from his own pages, Clayton is able to inject a part of himself into the music. With every note, we are privy to something very personal, something unique and above all something refreshing. This is the defining characteristic of Clayton’s most recent effort. Like our own human potential, its boundaries are paradoxically limitless. Several months from now, when we are looking back at the year’s best albums, I expect that we will be discussing Gerald Clayton’s sophomore project, Bond: The Paris Sessions.
Words by Paul Pennington
To hear tracks from the album, head to Gerald Clayton’s site here.