When pianist Gerald Clayton titled his fine new album Tributary Tales, he had a few different connotations in mind. A tributary is a stream that feeds a river or lake; it's also a gift paid in tribute, or a political state that serves a superior power. Clayton was thinking about his relationship to the jazz lineage, and the ways in which various experiences and influences flow into a larger whole.
The album, due out on Friday on Motéma, is Clayton's first in three years — since Life Forum, on Concord Jazz — and it represents another step forward in his evolution as a composer and bandleader.
For most of the album he leads an ensemble with two saxophonists, Logan Richardson on alto and Ben Wendel on tenor, as well as his core rhythm team of Joe Sanders on bass and Justin Brown on drums. There are spoken-word contributions from Carl Hancock Rux and Aja Monet, as well as auxilary percussion parts by Gabriel Lugo and Henry Cole.
Clayton grew up immersed in the mainstream jazz language, courtesy of his father, bassist John Clayton, and his uncle, saxophonist Jeff Clayton. His pellucid touch and quicksilver phrasing can evoke swinging touchstones like Ahmad Jamal and Oscar Peterson — as well as contemporary heroes like Brad Mehldau. But in his rhythm bond with Sanders and Brown, and in the slant of his harmonic signature, Clayton has carved out his own space in the modern conversation.
He played some material from Tributary Tales during a recent installment of WBGO's Yamaha Salon Concert Series, in Midtown Manhattan. The performance, which took place during a major snowstorm this winter, found Clayton leading a slightly different personnel than on the album: Stephens, vibraphonist Joel Ross, bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Eric Harland. They begin by playing "A Light," and segue into "Lovers Reverie," featuring Rux's spoken-word poetry.
There's a brisk, sinuous pulse to "A Light," which is representative of Clayton's current voice as a composer. The principal melodic line, assigned here to soprano saxophone and vibraphone (rather than alto and tenor, as on the album), suggests the shadow influence of Lennie Tristano, but with a rhythmic foundation rooted in hip-hop and state-of-the-art postbop. "Lovers Reverie" moves in a slow drift, creating a cushion for Rux's vocal delivery. "Now there are only little shreds of fabric that make the whole," he intones. "But you seem to me to be without end."
There are other poetic interludes on Tributary Tales, along with yearning ballads and intricate constructions. "Wakeful" is a winning composition that draws from the harmonic language of Thelonious Monk. And through much of the album there's a canny deployment of two saxophonists, often arranged in counterpoint with the rhythm section.
WBGO will post more exclusive footage from this Yamaha Salon Concert in the weeks to come. Clayton embarks on a coast-to-coast tour this month, starting on April 29 in Salt Lake City, Utah. The tour concludes with a weeklong engagement at the Village Vanguard, May 23-28.