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Gerald Clayton Trio at Durham, NC's Motorco Music Hall

Ben Gray
Contributing Writer

Gerald Clayton brought his trio to Durham, NC’s Motorco Music Hall last Friday for the first of a two-night run. He had longtime partner Joe Sanders on bass and Kendrick Scott on drums (subbing for Justin Brown, who has appeared on Clayton’s albums as part of the trio; this trio with Scott on drums has certainly played together before, though, as evidenced by their rapport together).

From the very start of the concert, it was clear that this was going to be a special set of music. The back-and-forth between these three musicians was amazing throughout during the single set, and each musician had plenty of room to shine individually. Most of the tunes started with a solo piano introduction from Clayton, apparently without any pre-determined endpoint in most cases (a couple of songs were introduced as "I don’t know what we’re going to play now"). One exception was a new tune called "Light" - Clayton introduced this tune, then pulled out some sheet music, saying "It’s so new that I have to read it." That tune, like most of the others in the set, featured some stuttering rhythms, with all three members of the trio holding it together somehow to come up with a killer groove. Kendrick Scott was in no small part responsible for that - go see this man on the drums! Scott was all over his drum kit, pulling different sounds out by scraping cymbals, playing with different drum sticks and even with his bare hands, placing pads on top of his drum heads, holding shakers to add even more percussion, and generally just playing the hell out of the drums, with huge fills and crashing cymbals to push the music forward, but also the ability to lay back and add a quiet brushed snare underneath a ballad. At one of those points during the set, with Scott playing brushed snare and after Gerald Clayton’s piano introduction to a slower tune, Sanders took one of just a few bass solos and it was just amazing, spine-tingling stuff, moving all over the range of the instrument and finding new melodic possibilities in the tune. At the end of the set, the very appreciative crowd gave a standing ovation and the trio came out for an encore, which I believe was a standard, though I don’t recall what the tune was at this point.

The whole night was like that, actually - this trio has a way of taking their material, whether it is a jazz standard, or what Clayton called a "derangement" of an older jazz tune (like his rearrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s "Upper Manhattan Medical Group," which Clayton called "Under Madhatter Medicinal Groupon"), or a brand new tune, and making it sound like a classic old tune. A large part of this, I think, is Clayton’s touch on the piano that has a timeless feel to it. But what is truly amazing about this group is how they can move from a timeless piano trio playing a bebop standard into something so completely modern, with stop-start rhythms and a hip-hop influence (don’t forget, Scott and Clayton are both part of the NEXT Collective, bringing a jazz sensibility to hip-hop and pop tunes). As much as Clayton’s writing for larger bands (as on his most recent album A Life Forum) is fantastic, the man has certainly yet to exhaust the possibilities of the jazz piano trio, as last night’s show clearly demonstrated.

Clayton will in Boston as part of the Matt Stevens Quartet on April 2, and will lead a two night run at Small’s Jazz Club in NYC on April 4-5. Go check them out if they are coming your way.

He'll also be back in Durham with The Clayton Brothers for the Art of Cool Festival in on Saturday, April 26th, so get ready.