Jay Clayton’s ScatLab—A Vocal Jazz Workout

Suzanne Lorge By

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[Jay's] creativity, prowess, and warmth know no bounds or limitations.
—Michael Moody, singer
For the last decade, free-bop vocalist Jay Clayton has been conducting regular "scat labs" out of the Manhattan teaching space that she shares with NEA Jazz Master Sheila Jordan. In ScatLab, jazz singers of all levels of experience meet up to trade twos and fours, riff on traditional blues heads, and improvise on well-known songbook tunes. The purpose here is to practice spontaneous composition in a safe space, away from the microphone and the audience. So if a singer trips over a lyric or can't exactly remember the changes—no harm, no foul.

ScatLab lays the foundation for Clayton's more advanced teaching: an eight-week Nuts & Bolts workshop that shows singers how to choose the right repertoire, arrange songs in unexpected tempos and feels, and run down a tune's roadmap for the band; her week-long jazz camp with Jordan in Putney, Vermont, where singers not only explore vocal improvisation from "bebop to free bop" but learn the theory behind jazz harmonization; and for-credit classes at Princeton University and the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University for singers wanting to pursue vocal jazz academically. At the culmination of these classes Clayton oversees showcase performances for her singers—always with top-tier musicians (bassists Cameron Brown and Yoshi Waki and pianists Ray Gallon and Takaaki Otomo, to name a few).

Several emerging singers with new releases have benefited from Clayton's tutelage. Here are a few who have taken her teaching to heart:

Michael Moody interweaves spoken word sections with several thematically related standards to explore the romantic challenges that millennials face on I Wish You Love (s/p), with stellar pianist John Di Martino. On less-often-heard tunes like "Day In, Day Out" and "Poor Butterfly" Moody applies "various scales (whole tone, diminished, and blues) and diminished patterns to add a personal approach" to his repertoire, he explains. The album, an impressive debut, shows off Moody's keen sense of time, rich baritone, and agility with vocal improvs. Moody has worked on some of this repertoire in Clayton's Nuts & Bolts workshop and performed in different Manhattan venues as part of Clayton's sponsored evenings. "Jay is a genius. Her creativity, prowess, and warmth know no bounds or limitations," he notes.

Tokyo-based singer Emi Takada first worked with Clayton and Jordan at the Vermont jazz camp, and she often takes singer Marion Cowings' vocal jazz workshop at Small's jazz club when she's in New York. Over the last several years Takada has built a strong career for herself, with regular gigs in Houston, New York, Tokyo, and Jakarta—the international singer seems to be in constant motion. This year she launched her latest recording, Why Did I Choose You (What's New Records), a smooth album of polished performances on deftly arranged standards like "Stormy Weather" and "Lover, Come Back To Me"; notably, Cowings joins Takada in a duet on the melancholic Cole Porter classic, "Every Time We Say Good-bye." With this album Takada celebrates what the Japanese call "en"—a special bond between people and precisely the feeling that she wants to create with her music. "I think jazz is for the world, not just one city or country. It has no barriers," she says.

As a singer and performer, Michelle Duda is grace personified. She describes her debut standards album, A Fool Like Me (s/p), due out in January 2019, as "reflections from a romantic on love. Exhilarating beginnings. Melancholy endings. And the sheer foolishness of going back for more time and again." Duda's silky voice puts her in the same category of seemingly effortless Songbook singers as Stacey Kent; but it's in her understated delivery on tunes like "East of the Sun" and confident vocal soloing on "Silent Tears" that the years of private study, workshops, and scat labs with Clayton stand revealed. The big takeaway from Clayton's teachings? "Know thyself. Choose songs you love and then tell your story," the vocalist says. Duda sings in a monthly residency at The Cupping Room in Manhattan.

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