Catching Up With Gerald Clayton
I don’t know which rock I was under to not have heard pianist Gerald Clayton’s music sooner, but it must have been a big one. Rarely am I speechless when I recommend an artist, but this time I really had to find the perfect words to entice you to place his music at the top of your priority list. His work is simply amazing and I am honored to have interviewed him.
At just 25 years old, Gerald has already proven that he has the skill of artists far beyond his years. I’d argue that his success could be partly attributable to his early musical environment. He started classical piano at age six, is the son of bassist John Clayton, and he is the nephew of saxophonist Jeff Clayton. So, what happens when you cultivate a musical gift for 19 years? You get Gerald Clayton. It is no wonder that he is often compared to such pianists as Oscar Peterson and Thelonious Monk.
Gerald has impressive performance experiences, as he has toured with Roy Hargrove and played with Lewis Nash, Al Foster and Terrell Stafford to name a few. Last month, Gerald played at the historic Village Vanguard in New York City. He was also nominated for a Grammy for Best Improvised Jazz Solo for his song All of You, featured on his album Two Shade.
Gerald shared a few of his musical experiences, composition techniques and upcoming plans.
Mimi Soul: Many critics have said that although you’re only 25 years old, you possess the skill of a veteran composer. How do you respond to those types of comments? What would you say has had the most impact on your success thus far?
Gerald: I take them as nice compliments, but I don’t consider my self a veteran. My first compositional influence was most definitely my father, from the first tunes he would write for me when I was 8, to all the great music I heard just from being around him. I feel very blessed to have grown up in an environment with so much musical information around me. I still feel that I am relatively new to composition though. I spent a lot of time just learning how to play the piano. I may have been subconsciously honing my compositional skills in those earlier years, but it wasn’t until college that I really started taking composition seriously. Since then, I’ve had the chance to study with and learn from a lot of great musicians, both teachers and contemporaries. I see composition as a never-ending learning process. The possibilities are limitless, and I’m enjoying the search.
Mimi Soul: Your biography says that you try to combine the forces of your many musical influences into a harmonic whole. What are some of your musical influences? How do you like to blend those influences together?
Gerald: My first love on the piano was Oscar Peterson. So for a long time I primarily listened to musicians who played with that sort of spirit- very joyful, bluesy, and swinging. I later found out about pianists like Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Gonzalo Rubalcaba (the list goes on); every one of them making music with their own unique spirit. I was also heavily influenced by music that my friends were into. In high school I was exposed to hip hop and R&B, and some rock and pop music as well- The Fugees, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Bjork (this list also goes on in various directions). So I was always attracted to different types of melodies, harmonies, and grooves. Combining those influences is a matter of getting in touch with the spirit and emotions in the music, and trying to convey those same emotions with honesty.
Mimi Soul: What is one of your most rewarding musical experiences?
Gerald: I got to play a Mother’s Day concert at Disney Hall. My dad wrote a three movement piece to feature me accompanied by an orchestra. Besides getting to play in a spectacular hall, it was an honor to play my dad’s music and, together with him, show love to my mom on Mother’s Day.
Mimi Soul: Congratulations on your Grammy nomination for “All of You”. Could you tell us a little more about how that song came together?
Gerald: Thank you. It’s a song that I’ve heard played a lot of different ways. So when I started to arrange it, I said “Let me find out what the original melody is and go from there.” I was able to get my hands on the original lead sheet, and sure enough there were some notes and harmonies that were new to me. I then took into consideration the way that Joe Sanders and Justin Brown play, and wrote an arrangement that I thought would compliment the trio. When the three of us started playing around with it, we came up with new ideas together, like the key changes and tempo changes.
Mimi Soul: What advice do you have for young aspiring jazz artists?
Gerald: Listen to the music, sing the music, and live the music. Music is both universal and personal. While it is there for everyone to process, the thoughts, emotions, and memories that music provokes are different in each person. Stay in touch with your personal connection to music, and when it’s time to create, be honest and play from the heart. The rest will take care of itself.
Mimi Soul: What effect would you like for your work to have on the future of jazz music?
Gerald: That’s a hard question for me to answer. I have to start by saying that I don’t care too much for genre distinctions. The more I learn about music, the more I realize it is all connected. I hope to continue making music with people who share that open mindedness and are willing to come together in sake of the music and nothing else.
That being said, I have a lot of love and respect for the tradition of jazz music, because it is the music that I first fell in love with. By embracing improvisation, jazz music has always represented ideas like freedom, musical democracy, and comradeship; all values that I believe are worth supporting. I think some jazz musicians today have lost their focus on these elements. So I guess if I had to wish for an effect on the jazz scene, it would be that this generation can be the one to wholeheartedly bring those values back.
Mimi Soul: In addition to your U.S. tour, what else can we expect from you this year?
Gerald: I’ll be playing in various musical settings: duo with my dad, in the Clayton Brother’s quintet, Ambrose Akinmusire group, and other great musicians in New York City. I’m currently working on a lot of new music for my next album, which my trio will record this year. So look out for that.
Mimi Soul: Last question, just for fun. Let’s say you were asked to part with all of your music except for three albums. Which three albums would you have to keep?
Gerald: Ahhh, the old desert island question… so tough. I could probably survive on these three: Oscar Peterson/Clark Terry – Trio + 1, D’Angelo – Voodoo, and Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter – 1+1.
All of You
Two Heads One Pillow