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Gerald Clayton at Trinity University


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Beginning quietly, almost tentatively, he treated Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Luiza” as a kind of prelude or fantasia, an opening dialogue with the composition, the piano, and the room.
Gerald Clayton
Trinity University / Ruth Taylor Hall
San Antonio, TX
November 7, 2023

Trinity University's Ruth Taylor Hall, with its intimate seating and warm wood-paneled acoustics, is a welcoming spot for a solo piano concert. Addressing the audience as he entered the stage, Gerald Clayton remarked on the geniality of the vibe. He was going try to catch some waves, he said, speaking metaphorically and as an ardent California surfer. Beginning quietly, almost tentatively, he treated Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Luiza" as a kind of prelude or fantasia, an opening dialogue with the composition, the piano, and the room.

A musical composition is a curious thing in an improvisatory milieu. What exactly is it? A jazz player would have a kind of lead-sheet somewhere in mind (form, melody, chord changes, idea of rhythmic feel), and maybe a specific arrangement, but someone like Clayton is likely to have transcribed other versions, which have become part of the piece for him. In jazz—especially in a solo performance—to play the tune is to enter into this imaginary world where other realizations of it—other possibilities—live, and to somehow interact with them in real time. Yesterday's performance may seem like a wholly different composition than today's; there are no rules. The uncertainty of this can be liberating or daunting to the performer. For the audience, it's part of what makes the experience exciting. On this evening, Clayton's exploration of "Luiza" was redolent with the romantic ethos of the original but somehow gentler. He seemed haunted by Jobim's voice, piano, and a lyric that implores Luiza, a fictional character in the Brazilian novela Brilhante (1981), to come hear the song he has created in order to forget her. Throughout the program, Clayton approached his repertoire similarly, eschewing the typical head-solo-head format in favor of freewheeling exploratory improvisations that touched lightly on the written material at first, stating it more completely only toward the end.

Clayton's second offering was from his Piedmont Blues: A Search for Salvation, a multimedia performance piece for which he undertook two years of musicological and ethnographic research in the Piedmont region of the eastern US, conducted with acclaimed media artist Christopher McElroen under a grant from Duke University. As he described it, the work is both a concert piece and a history lesson on the lives and musical traditions of people in the region, which have been influenced by ragtime, stride, and old-time string band jazz, among other genres. In creating the music, Clayton transcribed and extracted rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic ideas from his research, then recombined them in new ways for his jazz nonet featuring singer Rene Marie and tap dancer Maurice Chestnut, developing a musical narrative that speaks to a contemporary audience. In San Antonio, he ended his Piedmont Blues segment with guitarist-songwriter Elizabeth Cotten's "Freight Train," performed simply. "Freight Train" was the first piece from the region that he fell in love with, he said. It was Cotten's simplicity that attracted him. "What struck me was the humility in her expression. There was no interest in showing off. Not trying to wow the listener, or even herself. It was the most honest delivery of the melody and its lyrics I could imagine." This could be said about Clayton himself; he projects a genuine humility on and off stage.

The set list this outing featured engaging renditions of several selections from his discography, including an intriguingly idiosyncratic version Bud Powell's "Celia" (see YouTube, bottom of page) and his own "Patience Patients," both of which he recorded for Happening: Live at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note, 2020), the latter also appearing on Tributary Tales (Motéma, 2017). From Bells on Sand (Blue Note, 2022), a beautiful album he made with his father, renowned bassist John Clayton, he offered Catalan composer Federico Mompou's evocative "Damunt de tu Nomes les Flors (Above You Only Flowers)." To round out the program, he played a gorgeous version of Thelonious Monk's "Monk's Mood," followed by a tender performance of Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy," a tune that had been a childhood favorite.

As an encore, Clayton offered, aptly, his own powerful take on Ray Bryant's version of "Gotta Travel On," the old folk song first recorded commercially by Pete Seeger with The Weavers (Vanguard, 1957). The audience was left hoping, as the lyric says, that he will play around this old town again.

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