This stunningly good mainstream big band has been very much on the go for twenty years now, formed by the former Oscar Peterson drummer Jeff Hamilton in partnership with the Clayton Brothers—saxophonist and soloist Jeff Clayton; and virtuoso bassist, soloist, conductor, and arranger John Clayton. Very creative, yet with no special ambitions toward stylistic innovation and generally no very individual sound—though there are exceptions—the playing is at so high a level, so un-hackneyed, that sheer quality triumphs.
For instance, “Like a Lover” has an interestingly scored opening, with John Clayton’s bowed bass and some bass clarinet over a rhythm section that features a second bassist. The strictly comparable band of Kenny Clarke and Francy Boland, with a star lineup of native and American residents of Europe, had two drummers. The intriguing rather than atmospheric start to “Like a Lover” leads to the set’s one solo from Snooky Young (a truly magnificent veteran trumpeter who spent a little time with Clarke-Boland), playing quietly with mute and with plunger before things do really become atmospheric. Jeff Clayton’s soprano over the rhythm lifts the very good into the special with remarkable conjurations. Often, when this band is playing both solidly and with ensemble invention, something like this happens to take things up a notch.
The choice of repertoire is another recommendation. After a sufficient number of years listening to a lot of jazz, it’s difficult to avoid recognising a lot of the older repertoire. Just looking at a programmed list of titles can become an experience in itself.
Sonny Stitt’s “Eternal Triangle” turned up decades back on a celebrated set by the composer with Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins. After thinking it’s nice to see the name again, there’s the question of what the arranger will turn out to have done with the title. Here, there’s somewhat Basie-ish scoring for the saxophone section, but playing a fast winding bop line, and then each of them soloing in his turn: Callet, Fiddmont, and Clayton on altos, the pianist striking chords, Woodard on tenor with the brass coming in for a first climax, before Charles Owens’s tenor does its scheduled wild roaring. This is more than a new assembly of the recognisable.
With the baritone sax prominent, brass paraphrases open the last track, and then the theme of Johnny Hodges’ “Squaty Roo” is played on piano. There’s nice work by the reed section, with baritone lead, and a sequence of solos with rhythm, Woodard, and Bohanon’s burry trombone flinging throwing in a quote from Strayhorn’s “Raincheck” to spice a characteristic solo. Clay Jenkins is dry-toned on trumpet, and Ellingtonisms from the pianist in a solo whose momentum is kept up. There’s also Gilbert Castellanos on trumpet with band accompaniment, trombones and baritone. The insert refers to a drum solo, but Hamilton’s excellent workout is all the better for being performed over a lovely weaving of well-arranged fragments of the theme in question.
Thus one can try to give the picture: A band with few current rivals, playing arrangements that are always good and sometimes inspired; one not only with a lot of solo strength, but presenting excellent solo opportunity. This doesn’t mean just solo space—as when everybody else but the rhythm drops out, and one hornman comes to the mike to blow—or when everybody else but the rhythm drops out, and it becomes clear that while Tamir Hendelman (like some of the very best) doesn’t have the most distinctive piano sound, he can stir a great variety of phrasing and rhythm.
You want straightforward, you got Rickey Woodard driving on tenor during a listener-reviving “Georgia”. You want hints of the big band sound crystallised by Basie a few years after Pearl Harbor, you shouldn’t mind hearing Woodard again, and the band style interacting with Horace Silver’s “Jody Grind”. Then there’s John Clayton’s bowed bass intro and his long solo feature on “Nature Boy”, which seems to be about the sort of person who’d appreciate “Lullaby of the Leaves” and Bohanon after a prelude matching flutes with trombone and bass clarinet. Bop-and-Basie is also “Silver Celebration”, a Horatiad written for (rather than by) the composer of “Jody Grind”. The trombone solo after brass and drums has delicate support from Hamilton, and indeed everybody gets in on the quiet. Stunning and unpredictable dynamics.
The second bassist, Christoph Luty, gets some solo space on “Captain Brown”, composed by Monty Alexander, Herb Ellis, and Ray Brown (whom a misprinted programme once referred to as ‘Triple Threat’). Tamir Peterson presages what’s really a two-bass duet—for such is the effect of the theme on the piano intro: A hit study in Brown and the late Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen before the band gets Basie. Charles Owens solos here and also on “Mood Indigo”, which could stand more re-scorings along the lines of Jeff Clayton’s here every so many years. Ira Nepus sounds as if he might be playing the legendary bass trumpet, so carefully does he handle his muted trombone solo. After Owens and biggish brass, a half-chorus of bowed bass, and back to the quiet and the exceptional Nepus. Right in the middle of things there’s an arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence”, with curious-sounding phrases of unusual instrumentation introducing an idiomatic band passage from which emerges Randy Napoleon’s electric guitar, whose slightly clipped, almost rushed-sounding phrasing almost on the mandolin-ish side pushes forward the beat. Making the heart of a performance of a Monk number a feature for four of the band’s five trumpeters was the sort of inspired decision characteristic of this whole set. After the brassy climax of a false ending, the opening again, and finally the close.
We are also reminded: ‘A portion of the proceeds of sales of this CD will go to Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, a multi-discipline, minority-directed arts and learning center serving the urban community in Pittsburg, PA.’
Suggestions of family spirit notwithstanding, all these guys can play, and this really is a very well-arranged very, very good big band.