Gerald Clayton – ‘Tributary Tales’ (Album Review)

After a four year wait, fans will be pleased to hear that Tributary Tales, while surely taking a page out of the same book as its preceding album, A Life Forum, is another fantastic – and different – addition to the Clayton discography. On Tributary Tales the lineup of Clayton’s previous record is almost intact featuring all of the previous musicians and vocalists with the exception of Akinmusire and Gretchen Parlato. New additions to the ensemble include Ben Wendel, who plays tenor sax with Stephens only appearing on “Wakeful” on baritone sax, Henry Cole and Gabriel Lugo on percussion and poet Aja Monet, who masterfully accompanies the cinematic deep tone of Hancock Rux’s voice on “Lovers Reverie” and “Dimensions: Interwoven”.

Moments like “Lovers Reverie” and “Dimensions: Interwoven” are tracks that make the Life Forum connection clear. Both of the aforementioned songs are expansions of an idea – perhaps not lyrically, but musically – that was presented with “A Life Forum” – the idea being a great union between music and prose. Both tracks are equally beautiful, “Lovers Reverie” having the poets lyricism primarily backed by a beautiful arrangement of the horns and “Dimensions: Interwoven” opting for a more sparse soundscape, with the song opening up with notes from Clayton’s keyboard trickling up and down as he accompanies himself calmly on acoustic piano. In particular, “Dimensions: Interwoven” proves to be a fantastic album closer, with Monet’s poignant delivery of lyrics such as “there is a way about the world, that makes me want another one” or “I just want to be free, I want to love, I want to live” being especially moving over Clayton’s composition.

Band members and poetry aside, another clear expansion of an idea that Clayton first worked with on Life Forum is the use of short interlude tracks. Life Forum only featured one song in this mold, “Prelude”, which was a track which introduced the main melody of the following song “Some Always”. There are four short interlude tracks featured on the LP, however, instead of introducing melodic themes, they are short ideas in themselves, featuring solo performances or duets. “Search For” is a great example of this aspect of the album, a track which, similar to “Prelude”, progresses from a less produced aesthetic quality to the more modern quality of the rest of album. “Search For”, is a short and interesting collaboration between piano and saxophone with an atmosphere of a public performance briefly given by the recording of passerby in the background.

Tributary Tales is an album that wastes no time, with the rapid “Unforeseen” starting off the album with a bang. What stands out immediately here is the percussion and drum work that drives this track – Cole, Lugo and Brown combine to give the tune an intense edge. Throughout a good portion of the track, Clayton seems to dodge the spotlight, having the horn section provide the main melody while playing the piano in a more percussive role in the background. However, in the less percussion heavy moments of the tune, the band-leader switches onto the electric keyboard, giving the track a gorgeously spacious atmosphere before it transitions back into full swing.

“A Light” is another album highlight, anchored around a fantastic six note bass line which is often supported by the piano. Despite how good the bass and piano are in this track, the main focus has to be Richardson and Wendel, both of the sax players proving their chops with impressive solos as Clayton provides beautiful flourishes of notes in the background. Clayton’s ability to interplay with the sax also takes center stage in the first section of “Are We”. The track’s opening portion is sparse and graceful, with only Richardson’s alto sax and Clayton’s piano present until Clayton introduces the main melody around the 1:30 minute mark of the song.

Though in sections of songs like “Are We” Clayton shows himself to be adept at the more light and peaceful aspects of jazz, there are some tracks like “Squinted” in which he seems to take a moment to throw everything his band has at the listener. The tracks starts off with both sax players and Clayton taking great solos and then gets briefly frantic about four minutes in. In the fourth minute of “Squinted”, all members of the band, Vasandani on vocals included, rise to give a dramatic mid-song climax, only to suddenly cease to let the piano enter alone right after, Clayton being the sonic equivalent to sunlight peeping through the clouds of a heavy storm. “Soul Stomp” is another track that deals in energetic moments, such as the 30 second soulful breakdown that starts near the fifth minute mark. However, “Soul Stomp” doesn’t stand out just because of its vibrance, the overt soul influence makes the single starkly different from the rest of Tributary Tales – a tasteful throwback to Clayton’s more blues and soul infused endeavors of Two Shade.

With an appreciation of Life Forum, it’s hard to see Tributary Tales as anything other than another great achievement for Clayton. The pianist has again proven himself to be among the best of what modern jazz has to offer, with technique and compositions that can be complex while still having the ability to resonate instantly with the listener. As he has already been exposed to jazz fans outside of his solo work via his playing with the Roy Hargrove Quintet on Earfood in 2008, one can only hope that a quality record like Tributary Tales will further increase his stature in the genre. It’s hard to predict where he goes from here, however whether he embraces a larger ensemble again or reverts back to a trio setting, based on the evidence of Tributary Tales and the rest of his strong discography, odds are that whatever he releases will be of extremely high quality.

Tributary Tales, the latest album from pianist Gerald Clayton is out now on Motema Music.