Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra at Mesa Arts Center

Patricia Myers By

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Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra
Mesa Arts Center
Mesa, Arizona
March 7, 2014

The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, one of the best big bands in the nation for three decades, swung mightily all night long with strong section work and stylish solos arranged for specific members, per Duke Ellington and Count Basie. A brief post-intermission QA period from triumverate co-leaders bassist John Clayton, saxophonist Jeff Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton added personal insights for a full house of enthusiastic Arizona fans.

With John Clayton fronting the band as director, the concert opened with "Georgia on My Mind," the usual ballad treatment swapped for a fast-driving arrangement with ample space for tenor saxophonist Rickey Woodard to first croon the intro, then burn his way to the end. The bebop mode of Sonny Stitt's classic "Eternal Triangle" let more of the reeds section contribute, including Lee Callet's throaty baritone, searing alto work by Keith Fiddmont and Jeff Clayton, and the tenor warmth of 74-year-old Charles Owens (who was born in Phoenix), before the section harmonized a la Supersax 2.0.

A musical twist took Hoagy Carmichael's 1938 "Heart and Soul" out of simple piano-duet status, Jeff Clayton supplying the melody on alto flute, replicated by his bassist brother's bowing richness and pianist Tamir Hendelman's purely captivating piano explorations of the simple melody line, Hamilton sweeping it along via inventive brushwork. Another change of pace was "Hat's Dance," a new original composed by Hendelman and drummer Hamilton, honoring the latter's 90-year-old mother, Harriet (nicknamed Hat) with a solid groove featuring more of Jeff Clayton's flute and the pianist's extraordinary command of the keys.

This band's command of dynamics, from musical murmurs to exciting roars, continued with a pair of tribute charts. "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," composed in honor of Lester Young by bassist Charles Mingus (another Arizona native), featured more of Clayton's alto flute countering his brother's liquid-silver bass moves, as the brass wailed mournful minors and Owens' tenor crooned deep shades of blue. The second salute was bassist Ray Brown's "Buhaina Buhaina," the title referencing a nickname of drummer Art Blakey when he briefly took the name Abdullah Ibn Buhaina after he visited Africa in the late '40s. The combined sounds of Woodard's tenor and Jeff Clayton's flute with Clay Jenkins on trumpet and John Clayton playing arco were underscored by Hamilton supple rhythm moves.

Hendelman launched Thelonious Monk'x "Evidence" to set up Jenkins' crisp angular open-horn progressions as the sax section coalesced in unison. The anticipated "Indiana" (Hamilton's birthplace) was unexpectedly played in slow-meter, as was "Emily," both featuring the Clayton brothers on bowed bass and lyrical alto sax. The trombone section, three-quarters of which have been with the band since its 1985 inception, was featured on an upbeat "I Love Being Here with You," with solo spots by Ira Nepus, George Bohanon and Maurice Spears (bass t-bone). "Squatty Roo" from the Johnny Hodges catalog for the Duke Ellington Orchestra featured solos by Woodard, Bohanon and Jenkins, fueled by Hamilton's slick sticks style.

Bassist Ray Brown's "Captain Bill" tribute to Count Basie was a lively delight, Hendelman playing like the Count as bassist Luty's solo channeled Walter Page to support tenor man Owens again delivering a feature solo as Clayton turned into a dancing director during the orchestra's shout choruses, leading back to Hendelman's Basie-style finish.

The concert was the last in a series for John Clayton as artist-in-residence for the fourth year of the Mesa Arts Center's "Jazz from A to Z" program that focuses on music performance and music history as related to jazz. Clayton has led classes and workshops at the center and in schools for students and teachers, and the 550-seat theater's balcony was filled with high school students. Last year, he also performed in a quintet with his pianist son Gerald Clayton and alto saxophonist brother Jeff, plus Terell Stafford on trumpet and Obed Calvaire on drums. He also created and staged an intriguing bass trio with Rodney Whitaker and Victor Wooten.

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