News Column

Gerald Clayton builds on a sound upbringing

November 30, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 30--Jazz pianist Gerald Clayton recorded the bright, ambitious "Life Forum," his third album, with a larger ensemble than his regular trio. The son of a jazz bassist and band leader, Clayton, 29, has long been regarded as an exquisite, precise player disinclined to repeat himself. On "Life Forum," he also shows a steady hand as a composer and arranger, even with the additional moving parts. He comes to Houston Saturday with his trio and a new set of compositions. He answered a few questions about the album and his childhood immersed in music.

Q: The title "Life Forum" seems to be a mission statement of sorts. Are you trying to start different sorts of musical conversations with this bigger ensemble?

A: I think so. With each record, I start thinking about a theme or I try to think honestly about what's happening musically. With "Bond," it was a trio I'd spent the past year or two just bonding with and developing a sound and getting to know them on and off the bandstand. With "Life Forum," there were a lot of sessions where we'd get together and workshop ideas. These guys really pushed me the past couple of years. And that was the main theme of the record. With every project, my mindset is to see if there are lessons learned that can be applied outside of music. This one, it was to look at all of life as a big forum: not a battlefield, but an open-minded peaceful place with different sides.

Q: You worked with more players on the new record. But you're coming to town with your trio. Do you three adapt the new music for the setting?

A: Yeah, we've gotten very good at adapting the music. That's one of the cool things about the group I call on for these gigs: They have the ability to listen to anything -- orchestra, big band, nonet -- and turn it into a trio without a problem. They're good at giving consideration to all the little things.

Q: Do you find the songs surprise you when you re-configure them?

A: Yeah, we just try to let every performance be its own thing and discover new things in the music every time if possible. There are definitely things like melody and harmony where there was an original way that it was written. If you start to play things more than a few times the same way, you start to get bored. So we like to keep things interesting. That's one of the aspects of this that I like most.

Q: With your father's work, did you find music unavoidable as a kid? Or did he shield you from it at all?

A: Yeah, my dad, besides just the exposure to the music, which was immense, there was getting to see the musicians and sound checks, and the lifestyle behind the music. That attracted me at a young age. Beside that, my dad was proactive and hard-working. Every night he was in his studio working on something. I'd go to sleep hearing harmony. It's only recently that I remembered that. It was like, "Oh, I guess it's not very usual to go to sleep every night hearing your dad playing chords." His personal drive was unreal. Both of my parents are like that. My mom runs marathons. They take the bull by the horns. So music was always around. But they were smart about it, and they knew not to push me too hard or to put me in the studio at a young age. Dad said, "You have the rest of your life to record. Just do it for the music. The rest will take care of itself."

Q: Was jazz the first music that drew your attention as a player?

A: I've always been listening to jazz, but I was classically trained. But I think the first tune I fell in love with was Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy." As a kid that was my jam. I don't even know how you'd categorize it, but that's where it started. I also listened to a lot of Oscar Peterson records as a kid. Over the course of years, I've tried to ignore the genre lines and see music for the 12 notes that can be manipulated in different ways. I try to find honest, good, interesting music that I enjoy.

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