Gerald Clayton searches for honest expression in every note he plays. With harmonic curiosity and critical awareness, he develops musical narratives that unfold as a result of both deliberate searching and chance uncovering. The four-time GRAMMY-nominated pianist/composer formally began his musical journey at the prestigious Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, where he received the 2002 Presidential Scholar of the Arts Award. Continuing his scholarly pursuits, he earned a Bachelor of Arts in Piano Performance at USC’s Thornton School of Music under the instruction of piano icon Billy Childs, after a year of intensive study with NEA Jazz Master Kenny Barron at The Manhattan School of Music. Clayton won second place in the 2006 Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Piano Competition.
Expansion has become part of Clayton’s artistic identity. His music is a celebration of the inherent differences in musical perspectives that promote true artistic synergy. Inclusive sensibilities have allowed him to perform and record with such distinctive artists as Diana Krall, Roy Hargrove, Dianne Reeves, Ambrose Akinmusire, Dayna Stephens, Kendrick Scott, John Scofield Ben Williams, Terell Stafford & Dick Oatts, Michael Rodriguez, Terri Lyne Carrington, Avishai Cohen, Peter Bernstein and the Clayton Brothers Quintet. Clayton also has enjoyed an extended association since early 2013, touring and recording with saxophone legend Charles Lloyd.
2016 marks his second year as Musical Director of the Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour, a project that has featured his trio along with Ravi Coltrane, Nicholas Payton, Terence Blanchard and Raul Midón on guitar and vocals.
Clayton’s discography as a leader reflects his evolution as an artist. His debut recording, Two Shade (ArtistShare), earned a 2010 GRAMMY nomination for Best Improvised Jazz Solo for his arrangement of Cole Porter’s “All of You.” “Battle Circle,” his composition featured on The Clayton Brothers’ recording The New Song and Dance (ArtistShare), received a GRAMMY nomination for Best Jazz Instrumental Composition in 2011. He received 2012 and 2013 GRAMMY nominations for Best Jazz Instrumental Album for Bond: The Paris Sessions (Concord) and Life Forum (Concord), his second and third album releases.
Capturing the truth in each moment’s conception of sound comes naturally to Clayton. The son of beloved bass player and composer John Clayton, he enjoyed a familial apprenticeship from an early age. Clayton honors the legacy of his father and all his musical ancestors through a commitment to artistic exploration, innovation, and reinvention.
In the 2016-17 year, Clayton turns his imaginative curiosity toward uncovering the essence of the Piedmont Blues experience and expression in early twentieth century Durham. A Duke University commission, Clayton’s evening-length composition will explore a mixed media performance that features some of the most resonating voices in contemporary music.
Life Forum Creates a Meeting Place for Meaningful Musical Exchange
Pianist Gerald Clayton released his debut recording for Concord Records, Life Forum, on April 2, 2013. This 12-song set combines Clayton’s highly skilled trio members, bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Justin Brown with saxophonists Logan Richardson and Dayna Stephens and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. Vocalists Gretchen Parlato and Sachal Vasandani and poet Carl Hancock Rux complete the ensemble.
Clayton is an artist who does not work in a vacuum. Clayton is recognized by peers and public alike to hungrily seek opportunities which allow for creative musical exchanges with other artists. And he understands that any successful artistic venture requires listening as much as expressing, open-mindedness as well as respect for the input of others. It requires leadership and, most importantly, demands a shared love for the art form and each other. Clayton understands that these are the conditions that create a forum for something truly magical to emerge.
Clayton’s recording, Life Forum, testifies to these values.
As Clayton states, “From everyone’s high level of musicality, open ears, creativity and love for one another has emerged a product that is so much more than the sum of its parts.” He adds, “This record is about gathering my favorite musicians and giving them the best platform to explore and openly express themselves. I take the same concepts and values that lead to creative expression as a credo to live by, hence Life Forum.”
Clayton considers Life Forum possibly his most ambitious album to date, which is no small claim considering the artistic and commercial success of Two Shade, his Grammy-nominated 2009 debut album, followed by the equally acclaimed 2011 - also Grammy-nominated - Bond: The Paris Sessions (he received a third nomination in 2012 for his composition, Battle Circle, written for The Clayton Brothers). “I am writing more now than I have ever done before,” he says. “Working with a larger ensemble for this album meant a great deal of preparation. Ben Wendel, who produced the record, was extremely helpful. I really admire his playing and his writing, so I knew I would value his musical feedback. He and I got together prior to the sessions to talk in detail about the music and map out exactly what needed to happen and at what time during the recording session. Organizationally, and in terms of the writing involved, creating this album was much more demanding than my previous records.”
And yet, Life Forum seems so effortless, from the very first title track that leads off the setː supported by the powerful musical undercurrent provided by the musicians, Carl Hancock Rux’s spoken word performance describes Life Forum as, “This is the map, old paths to new dangers, a place for passion reserved, for brief touches, for remembering love diminished, for freedom…”
The subsequent track “Future Reflection” rides a wave that is slightly more up-tempo and intense, with Parlato and Vasandani delivering an ephemeral chant above the persistent interplay between Clayton’s trio and the three horn players.
In the impressionistic “Sir Third,” the spaces between the notes seem to matter as much as the notes themselves. Demonstrating the trio’s now famous chemistry and cohesiveness, we witness them working as if taking a collective solo while still maintaining the groove.
“Dusk Baby” starts off as a gentle solo piano ballad with atmospheric lyrics delivered expertly by Vasandani’s light-as-a-feather vocal style. Midway through, Brown and saxophonist Dayna Stephens conjure up an energetic interlude, then step back to allow piano and vocal to finish out the track.
“Mao Nas Massa” combines a lighthearted piano melody with a persistent drum pattern. Conjuring up the feeling of a Brazilian samba, this song demonstrates the beauty of casual interplay between the two musicians.
“Some Always” packs enough brass and rhythmic punch to classify as an “anthem.” Clayton comments: “I worked on that for a while, just coming up with different voicings for that melody,” he says. “There is a recurring melody throughout the whole song, with solos being played on top. I also wrote a solo section where Ambrose and I play a single-note solo together. That was a new approach for me.” This is definitely a track which stands out.
“When an Angel Sheds a Feather,” a vocal duet with Parlato and Vasandani, is everything the title suggests – otherworldly and lighter than air. Clayton’s accompaniment provides a musical cushion for the voices, supporting their melodies with lush colors and tantalizing lines. Vasandani’s lyric is appropriately tender and beautiful.
“All of my projects are personal,” says Clayton and Life Forum is his most recent and arguably most revealing to date. “All of the tunes in this collection are my originals and are inspired by events in my life, especially by love and life transitions. It was my intention that these very personally inspired compositions would provide a forum for a group of amazingly creative artists to express themselves in a spirit of freedom, open mindedness and harmony. All life experiences and interactions offer us the chance for the development of tolerance, love, honesty, compassion and acceptance. Personally, the creation of this album has been an extraordinary opportunity for growth.”