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The Clayton Brothers Live at the Art of Cool Festival - April 26, 2014

Ben Gray
Contributing Writer

The Clayton Brothers played a set at Durham’s Carolina Theatre as part of the first annual Art of Cool Festival this past Saturday, April 26th. Bassist John and saxophone player Jeff Clayton are the eponymous brothers of the band; they’re joined in the band by John’s son, Gerald Clayton, on piano, Terell Stafford on trumpet, and Obed Calvaire on drums. This band is a powerhouse.

The Brothers opened their set with "Big Daddy Adderleys" (also found on their 2009 album Brother to Brother), an original by Jeff Clayton. Right out of the gate, Terell Stafford gave an absolutely smoking trumpet solo, energy level soaring. Later in the set, John Clayton described Stafford as the one playing an instrument that looked like a trumpet, but that he thought could be a stick of dynamite based on how it was being played. Stafford’s solos throughout the set were strong, but this opener really set the mood and energy level for the rest of the set. Stafford’s trumpet solo was followed by very strong solos from Jeff and then Gerald Clayton, then a great back-and-forth between John Clayton and Obed Calvaire. Both John Clayton and Calvaire got in some incredible playing during this back-and-forth. The band came back to the tune’s head, playing incredibly tightly together, and then finished the tune.

The next song they played was another Jeff Clayton original, "Cha Cha Charleston", off the Brothers’ 2010 album The New Song and Dance. This tune had some great stop-start playing from the full band during the head, but the highlights of this tune were the back-to-back solos from Gerald Clayton and Obed Calvaire. Gerald Clayton’s piano solo was one of the strongest pieces of improvised music I’ve ever had the opportunity to hear in person - no idea how this sort of thing could be conceived of, let alone pulled off. Although Gerald Clayton is known for his very sensitive playing, particularly with his own trio, his playing with the Clayton Brothers is big, muscular stuff (not that Gerald doesn’t really dig in with his trio or some of the other records he’s been featured on, but this is a different feel from his work with the Gerald Clayton trio). After the piano solo, the band moved into a vamp for Obed Calvaire to solo behind, and he took the opportunity to blow the collective minds of the audience, based on the reactions of the people around me. The band returned to the tune’s head, again with the great stop-start playing, and then brought it to a close.

The next tune they played was "Terell’s Song," also from The New Song and Dance. This tune was somewhat more subdued than the two burners that came before it, but Stafford in particular still got in a fiery solo here on trumpet. The band kept things in this more subdued mood with "Where Is Love?" (also on Brother to Brother), which opened with a beautiful solo introduction from Gerald Clayton’s piano that was joined first by John Clayton’s bowed bass and then by Jeff Clayton’s sax. This whole tune was perfectly done, without being overly sentimental. The bowed basslines gave a great feeling of the tune’s vocal line; when Jeff’s sax joined, it was with a breathy tone that then built into a beautiful sax solo with Obed Calvaire’s drums backing the band. The whole tune was beautifully done, but Gerald Clayton’s piano shined particularly bright here, with some improvised sections that sounded like something out of the classical canon.

The final tune of the set was "The Jones Brothers", another Jeff Clayton original from Brother to Brother. This was another burner, including some near super-human piano playing from Gerald Clayton and high-energy solos from Stafford and Jeff Clayton, leaving the audience on a high note.

This Clayton Brothers were effortlessly tight, playing in and around the beat, improvising at an incredibly high level and just killing throughout with every solo. Everyone in the band had multiple moments during their set that seemed to be almost super-human, and even the between song banter was entertaining, supplied by John Clayton. The chance to hear the easy rapport between brothers John and Jeff Clayton shouldn’t be missed, and the band they’ve built is as strong a straight-ahead jazz band as exists today.