Meditations On Music: Gerald Clayton Trio

Pianist Gerald Clayton performed the 2016-17 Jazz Series’ third concert this past Friday, Feb. 24. Joined by his trio of bassist Bob Hurst and drummer Eric Harland, the concert also featured tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens, who played with them during the whole concert. Before the show, the quartet minus Harland did an insightful Q&A, discussing creative motivation, ego, composition and more. Their articulate answers helped frame the following performance wonderfully by giving me clear musical examples of how to apply their words to myself and my own playing.

The first two tunes, which segued into each other, were the perfect openers and highlighted many of the group’s best attributes. To begin, they played a “de-arrangement”—as Clayton called it—of the standard “It Could Happen to You.” This, along with their other renditions of standards in their set, showed off their keen ability to play common tunes in both an accessible and freshly enjoyable way. With care but strong deliberation, the quartet deconstructed the standard while always holding on to it, and in a matter of time, the music was suddenly in something completely different. Many of their tunes ended amorphously, the four of them deeply listening to each other in a contrasting way than before, making the end of some pieces stand out as pieces of their own. As they navigated through the atmosphere, their distinct voices showed themselves—Clayton’s playing was twinkly and a thick blend of melody and texture, and Stephens’ was a smoky, mellow sound that took command no matter the volume.

Using the freedom in between pieces, the four traversed to the second tune, an original composition from Clayton. Beginning with a funkier, gospel-esque sound, they were recollected and bound by the strong groove. As the simple melody dissolved into busier runs from piano and sax, Hurst held down the bass line, frequently pushing against Harland who tweaked and altered the groove so present at the beginning. The solo section really caught my ear though, with Clayton and Stephens improvising in storms that slipped to and from each other with electric momentum. They were harder to take in, but near the end, Stephens played one lick that immediately resonated with me—a sonic equivalent to a spotlight. The moment passed quickly, but listening inside of it felt much longer than a few seconds, and I felt I understood what they were playing wholly.

No matter the complexity of the music and my lack of theory, I always felt connected to the quartet and what they played, thanks to the way they presented themselves on stage. An often-overlooked aspect, enjoying oneself during a performance is vital for me and can make music I have trouble comprehending much more personal and moving. Clayton and his group had absolutely no problem doing this—during a sax solo, he bobbed his head enthusiastically, resembling an audience member in wonder more so than a musician onstage. Clayton spoke of this at the Q&A as a way to combat being unmotivated. Easier said than done, he advised getting outside of oneself and just taking the time to truly listen to others, for no other reason than to just listen and enjoy. Consequently, this effort will also most likely inspire you, pushing the music forward honestly, as it did with him, Stephens, Hurst and Harland.

While these aforementioned moments stood out, there were countless others that spoke to me during their several tunes. However, this concert was a peculiar one because despite writing many notes about what they played, I cannot recall the music as well as how I felt. This fact is in no way a hindrance to my enjoyment of the show, but rather an observation that I will have to sit with for a while. Clayton and his group—strong advocators for playing emotionally—did just that, and I am thankful for the instinctual, visceral feelings that stuck even though the specific music did not. It is these feelings that will motivate me to play in a hope to instill similar feelings in others.