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Gerald Clayton Trio: Cologne, Germany, May 15, 2011

Phillip Woolever By

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Gerald Clayton Trio
Altes Pfandhaus
Cologne, Germany
May 15, 2011

The heralded, emerging Gerald Clayton and his current crew opened their European tour on a beautiful night in a beautiful, jazz specific venue, splitting well-spent time between Bond :The Paris Sessions (Emarcy, 2011), some finely retouched classics, and the pianist's Grammy-nominated Two Shade (Emarcy, 2009).

Altes Pfandhaus is an intimate, "in the round" type venue with excellent sightlines. The lucky swarm inside was privileged to witness the first formal performance by this powerhouse unit. The balanced trio crafted its inauguration into a resounding recital of big beat bop and birdland ballads, interspersed with Clayton coaxing a modest Maeari piano across solo landscapes of deep, distinctly toned explorations.

Embracing the often frustrating ritual concession jazz musicians must make to travel expenses and borrowed tools, Clayton and bassist Joe Sanders tuned in, on the venue-provided "house" instruments, as if they were personal favorites. This was a good fit. The room's sound had surprisingly strong presence for a system that appeared to be two floor monitors and a compact trio of elevated amps. Sanders latched himself onto the bass, and barely moved anything beyond his uncoiled arms and expertly blurred fingertips.

The dapper Clarence Penn was a snappy show by himself, as a debuting addition on drums. Considering that this was Penn's first official gig with longtime collaborators Clayton and Sanders, the percussionist's precision-punctuated pace was remarkable. The few times cymbal tip rhythms were on different wavelengths they never hindered a note.

"Trapped in Dream" opened the first set and embodied its title, as many folks were quickly spellbound by Clayton's take on freshly familiar phrases and the well-syncopated runs that have earned him ongoing accolades as an emerging entity. Many people closed their eyes and appeared to be drifting pleasantly on the sound waves.

"This is a great time for me and I'm honored about playing our music that was just released," beamed Clayton. "We just flew in today and I'm very excited. I remember this place's wonderful vibe and I'm glad it's still here."

A fully focused Clayton inhaled calmly and took a few extra breaths getting into the mood for Dizzy Gillespie's "Con Alma." Clayton's right hand snapped off almost as many polyrhythms as the snare drum, while his left barely laid out minimal supporting chords. The contrasting octaves made for very effective texture as the tune hit a rising bridge and the trio ignited into some serious swinging.

With his dangling dreadlocks and cheerfully elastic facial contortions, Clayton is a magnetic showman; as is the gesturing snapshot-styled Penn. Meanwhile, sometimes the anchor is the most crucial part of the ship, and Sanders remained a stabilizing force ("He knows me inside and out," says Clayton) throughout frequent midsize jams.

When Clayton moved into a bit of open space, the oval-shaped seating area seemed to sag under funeral tones as the bass thumped a D-string dirge. A now-solemn Penn bowed motionless, as if receiving some sort of congregational communion; others in the audience had already assumed the position. Clayton had clearly hooked many into hanging on every note.

For "Two Heads One Pillow" Clayton plucked inside the piano with his left hand to a strung-out buildup, while right-handed, two-key rhythms swirled through the trio's lighthearted shuffle. It was interesting to see satisfied singular countenances carried along different journeys through the same modal mode of transport. After an hour of tunes that had the audience in full groove, there was an intermission smoke break, almost mandatory in Deutschland.

"If I Were a Bell" got a slightly revised standard treatment that put the show right back into high gear. The segue into "Casiotone Pothole" illustrated both the modest Clayton's stated preference for offbeat song titles and his non-conceited scampering across the scales.

The difference between showing skill and showing off is often an artistic chasm for condescended-to customers. This no-nonsense show was all about newfound musical interaction on an untested set list. In no minor detail, the trio looked happy to be there, and very cool.

"Major Hope" delivered a stirring promenade, an obvious crowd favorite that could have gone down in The Village Vanguard around 1965, and provided vivid tonal testimony as to how the German jazz scene embraces tradition.

By the time Clayton closed the show with Duke Pearson's "You Know I Care" and "Bond: The Cast," both the players and their fans were fully engaged in the straight-ahead finale. In one of the most enthusiastic recent displays by a local Rhineland jazz audience, the psyched up swarm stomped in unison for more frantic modes as if it was a golden age Country Joe and the Fish show. The encore, "Boogablues," got the masses on their feet to testify.

It would be interesting to find out if this already well-prepared group can get even stronger, though it may only be part of a work in progress as far as Penn is concerned. Clayton will be performing with a variety of high hats as his engagements jelly roll back and forth between continents.

Meanwhile, this mapped out pinpoint on that itinerary made for a superb musical experience. Altes Pfandhaus was a great place to see friendly faces of fellow jazz fans profiled around the performers as dozens of obviously joyful observers wore constant smiles. More than a few people looked hypnotized, and everybody moved something—on or off the beat.

There may have been more renown or rewarded piano trios playing somewhere in music land; there were probably none better than that in Cologne on this evening.
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