Clayton's progressive musical ideas and exceptional musicianship propel Life Forum.
Relentless creativity and individual expression are two distinct qualities that fuel Gerald Clayton both in life and as a musician. Unsatisfied to be pigeonholed into a specific musical direction, the gifted pianist is driven by his willingness to collaborate interactively with a variety of musicians. Life Forum is the product of Clayton’s musical restlessness. Filled with ear-catching harmonic schemes, clever orchestrations, and cerebral improvisations, Life Forum feels unconstrained. Thrown in a brilliant ‘cast of characters’, and Clayton’s third effort is stunning.
“A Life Forum” establishes a mysterious tone, prefacing the eclectic nature overall effort. Poet Carl Hancock Rux recites reflectively atop a backdrop of rich jazz harmonies, performed by a arrangement of trumpet, saxophone, and neutral non-syllabic vocals, alongside rhythm section. “Future Reflection” expands upon the opening statement, accelerating the tempo as well as increasing the ambition. The piano states riffs initially, later carried by a saxophone-trumpet melodic combination. The lines are angular and quirky, embodying the title’s realization of the ‘future’. Clayton’s soloing provides another savvy push, delivering melodic right hand improvisations and reinforcing harmonic punches in the left.
“Shadamanthem” shines, with Justin Brown making drumming transcend its basic function of ‘time keeping’. Throughout, the horns exhibit exceptional restraint, giving the track a ‘cool energy’. Besides Clayton’s incredible knack for soundly-paced improvisations as a soloist, Ambrose Akinmusire flaunts his exceptional trumpet chops. A dramatic close finds Clayton adorning with magnificent, agile right-hand piano runs. On “Sir Third”, a selection driven by rhythm, the horns disappear bringing the trio to the forefront. Each member balances self-expression musically while managing to unite successfully as ‘one’. Keeping in step with constant contrasts, the refined “Deep Dry Ocean” finds Gretchen Parlato blending her flexible pipes splendidly with piano on the melody. With a light Latin groove about it, Brown enforces a consistent groove.
“Dusk Baby” trades Parlato for Sachal Vasandani, who delivers incredible subtle, relaxed vocals. Though it begins as a piano/voice collaboration, bass and drums eventually enter in, as does saxophone soloist Dayna Stephens. Clayton expands his scope, adding bluesy pianistic ideas upon the entrance of his colleague. Even with the extra oomph infused, “Dusk Baby” ends as it began, with Clayton ultimately issuing the final statement. A differing collaborative statement is born on “Mao Nas Massa”, where Brown and Clayton make musical magic. Clayton’s pianistic ideas seem to draw inspiration from a rhythm guitar, as well as other instruments as he makes the piano sound quite multidimensional. Brown keeps a steady groove for Clayton to build upon.
“Prelude” foreshadows “Some Always”, introducing the audience to a recurring harmonic progression receiving several timbrel treatments. The crowning achievement arrives courtesy of the rare scored unison solo, between Akinmusire and Clayton, something the pianist called “...a new approach for me”. “Some Always” ends up being the effort’s most elite showing, with none of the remaining cuts superseding it. “Like Water” continues experimenting with unlikely timbrel combinations, while “Unhidden” shows Clayton’s affinity for experimental harmonies, opening with a pianistic ‘salvo’. Although things settle down, things grow more dense and more intense. Concluding cut “When an Angel Sheds a Feather” is a sound duet between Parlato and Vasandani, easily praisable for its atmospheric nature and vocal chemistry. Embedded within the closer is untitled hidden track, contrasting the light featured number.
All in all, Life Forum is an exceptional conception. Clayton’s musical footprints are visible on every single track. He serves as the catalyst for his fellow musicians to feed and draw inspiration from. In a time where so many innovations have come and gone in jazz music, Clayton keeps the progressive spirit ‘alive and kicking’. Life Forum is one ‘fresh’ affair.