May 25, 2024

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Jam-loving jazz pianist Gerald Clayton heads to SF Bay Area gigs: Video

How do you get to the Village Vanguard? Practice, practice, practice.

The old joke about Carnegie Hall applies just as well to jazz’s most storied venue, but for jazz musicians, the path to that hallowed stage involves informal training far off the radar.

Growing up in Los Angeles, pianist Gerald Clayton was intimately familiar with the workings of jazz bands. His father, the great bassist, arranger and composer John Clayton, and his uncle, saxophonist Jeff Clayton, co-lead the Grammy Award-nominated Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, and Gerald started performing with their smaller Clayton Brothers band while still in high school.

But he got a whole new kind of education when he enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music in 2005, looking to get a taste of the Big Apple before finishing his undergrad degree at the USC’s Thornton School of Music.

While he threw himself into formal studies with piano master Kenny Barron, Clayton quickly discovered that the most intensive practicing took place when he and his peers got together in their apartments, “a ritual that’s been going on here forever, at least back to Miles and Bird and Monk,” he said, referring to modern jazz icons Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk.

Now living back in L.A., Clayton was in the midst of a week-long run at the Vanguard when we spoke last month. His quintet performs Friday at Kuumbwa Jazz Center and concludes the Jazz at Lesher concert series with two shows on Saturday. Both engagements include East Bay-raised saxophonist Dayna Stephens as a featured guest, renewing a connection first established when they both moved to New York around the same time.

“Right away with Dayna it was like, are you free? We’d get together and play all day, just calling tunes,” recalled Clayton, 34. “That’s how you really get to know a musician. You get a sense of their musical DNA, the records they checked out, their musical idiosyncrasies.

“Even cats of a really high caliber who you’d think are too busy are down to go to somebody’s house and shed and work on stuff,” Clayton continued. “I remember one epic session in Harlem, I had four drummers, three pianists and seven or eight horn players in my little two-bedroom apartment.”

It’s probably safe to assume that one reason so many players came out that night was the host’s reputation as a keyboard monster. The four-time Grammy Award nominee has been setting jaws slack since he was in high school, and when he’s not leading his own bands, he’s working with jazz’s most celebrated figures, including tenor sax star Charles Lloyd, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and guitarist John Scofield (with whom he performs at Kuumbwa on Oct. 17 and SFJazz on Oct. 21).

Beyond his phenomenal technique and prodigious improvisational imagination, Clayton impressed Stephens early on with his knack for constructing a set so that each piece is part of a larger narrative arc.

“He’s a brilliant writer, and his compositions are ear worms for me,” said Stephens, who returns to the Bay Area in the fall for a series of gigs with pianist and NEA Jazz Master Kenny Barron’s Concentric Circles Quintet at Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society (Nov. 4), Sonoma State’s Green Center (Nov. 7) and the SFJazz Center (Nov. 9).

“Working on my own, I’ve taken some of Gerald’s tunes and made electronic music with them. He writes melodies that sticks with you, with harmonies that are so strong and still unexpected. Every new project of his is evolving and progressing. He keeps you on the edge of your seat, wondering what he’s going to come up with next.”

For this weekend’s gigs, Clayton introduces a new configuration of players, building on his longstanding collaboration with powerhouse drummer Justin Brown, a Berkeley High alum. He’s played on all four of the pianist’s albums, from his 2009 trio debut “Two-Shade” (ArtistShare) to last year’s “Tributary Tales” (Motéma), which also features Stephens on baritone sax.

Like Clayton, Brown is now living in Los Angeles, as is bassist Dave Robaire, who’s performed several times at the Stanford Jazz Festival in recent years. Rounding out the quintet is the stellar young vibraphonist Joel Ross, a Chicago native who spent two years at University of the Pacific’s Brubeck Institute.

Clayton first played with Ross when he was in high school “and even back then, he stood out,” Clayton said. “He’s got huge ears and a total willingness to serve the music. The generation he’s in soaks up anything very quickly. He’s ready to push the music forward.”

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