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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Devin DeHaven, courtesy of the artist.

33-year-old pianist Gerald Clayton had made the transition from up-and-comer to bonafide stalwart on the international jazz scene. His fourth album, Tributary Tales,”was released this April to acclaim: it’s at turns glassy, soulful and funky, with introspective spoken word interludes woven in. (“His pellucid touch and quicksilver phrasing can evoke swinging touchstones like Ahmad Jamal and Oscar Peterson,” Nate Chinen wrote for WBGO.)

For this gig at The Jazz Gallery, Mr. Clayton will bring a different group than the one that appears on the album, but it’s nonetheless filled with familiar faces: Ben Wendel on saxophone, Matt Brewer on bass, Marcus Gilmore on drums, and Lage Lund on guitar. He’ll play some songs from Tributary Tales and some new ones. He called in to talk about the album and the gig; here are excerpts from that conversation.

The Jazz Gallery: What is the concept of Tributary Tales?

Gerald Clayton: I’ve been really inspired by nature and water. With a tributary being a small river that flows out of a larger body of water—I’ve been reflecting on that and how what we do is really connected to what came before us. We’re not setting out to recreate a language from the past, but the essence of the music that we love—that we’ve soaked up for years and years—still exists, and we carry along those messages that we learn from the elders.

It felt fitting to just to keep looking at everything as different tributaries. Another literal meaning of tributary is paying tribute, which definitely feels like it applies to the music I play: giving a nod to the masters. All the musicians on the record coming from different places and influences and there’s a sense of connectedness between everybody. And each song on the record might have a different character, yet there’s a flow that makes them feel like they all belong on the same disc.

TJG: Seems like you have a deep connection to water: where did that stem from? A single moment?

GC: I don’t know if it’s as poetic as a single moment. But I love nature, I love surfing, the feeling of being pushed by nature. Surfing’s one of the few sports where you’re tapping into an energy source.

When I was at the Monterey Festival, I got a tour of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and got to hear about their plastics initiative to clean up the ocean and be more aware of single use plastics. To get some firsthand information from people who devote their lives to that cause was a real honor and something I want to continue with moving forward.

TJG: What are you the most proud of about the album?

GC: The record is in a way a documentation of a single day. You go on, you play it more, you keep discovering new things. That’s definitely a part of the process I cherish. I really enjoyed getting to work with Aja Monet and Carl Hancock Rux and explore the relationship between music and spoken word a little bit more. Some of the post production work I did with Gabriel Lugo, the percussionist—I went further in than I have in the past in some of the sounds and effects. I’m proud of that work.  

TJG: What’s your relationship to the musicians on this bill?

GC: When I was in college I heard about Ben’s group Kneebody; I checked them out and became a huge fan. He produced my record Life Forum. He’s a very thorough guy: whenever he would bring in tunes to a session, they would be completely finished with all the details. He’s just a member of my musical family that I call on all the time.

Lage’s got his own voice and his own concept in music, melodically, harmonically. It’s just really badass. I’ll read the stuff he writes and every tune is something you can hold onto and return to. Brewer and Gilmore, I could say the same thing about those guys. I met Marcus at Grammy band in high school. I’ve seen him tear it up throughout the years.

TJG: What was that experience of Grammy band like?

GC: Every year they put together a band of high school auditions to play the week leading up to the Grammys and one of the afterparties. I went to an arts high school, and remember feeling that it was the best big band I had ever played in at the time. You definitely got the sense that these are beasts.

You end up seeing a lot of those guys on the scene: Joe Sanders, Justin Brown, Josh Evans, Trombone Shorty. It’s kind of a cool community, to look back and realize we met all those years ago and our paths keep crossing.

TJG: You mentioned paying tribute to elders. You recently honored Herbie Hancock at the Monterey Jazz Festival. What did that night mean to you?

GC: That was a really special night. Herbie has affected so much of the music scene. Not just one particular genre: he blurs those lines. It inspires you to stay focused on serving the music, not a narrative surrounding that music. Every contribution in the moment, he’s open to it. He dances with it. From a piano player’s perspective, someone who’s getting in on the craft, what he’s contributed harmonically and his concepts to rhythm and melodies is unbelievable. If you transcribe two or three Herbie chords, that’s fuel for the fodder for years to come. I still sit down and play Herbie chords that I’ve transcribed and am blown away how perfectly he spreads out a sound on the instrument.

TJG: How about Charles Lloyd, who you’ve played with in many of his bands?

GC: Lloyd is equally inspiring, in the way he lives his life and his devotion to the mysticism. He doesn’t have a cell phone or a credit card. He’s walking around, in tune with nature, giving thanks to the birds and the trees. That energy flows onto the bandstand. To get to dance with him on both stages, on the stage of life and the bandstand, is such an an honor. When you’re playing with him you have to let go. He’s not looking for a specific sound — he’s looking for a sense of discovery, to try to be child-minded, almost like you’re discovering music for the first time every time you play. You jump off a cliff with him and the wings inevitably catch. At the end of the gig you don’t really know what happened, but it felt really special.

Gerald Clayton plays The Jazz Gallery on Tuesday, October 17th, 2017. The group features Mr. Clayton on piano, Ben Wendel on saxophone, Matt Brewer on bass, and Marcus Gilmore on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M.  $25 general admission ($15 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($25 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.