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Gerald Clayton: ‘Craft, rhythm, expression – the parallels between music and surfing are endless’

The US musician, one of the most gifted and engaging pianists of the past 20 years, plans to make the most of Bray Jazz Festival’s seaside location

When the American pianist Gerald Clayton was eight years old his Los Angeles elementary school staged a talent contest. The young prodigy had been having lessons for a couple of years and had already performed European classical pieces at local recitals and competitions. At his school show, however, he decided to play something different: a boogie-woogie tune written out for him by his father, the renowned bass player and bandleader John Clayton.

“Playing those classical recitals was a thrilling feeling, but this was amazing – people were smiling and clapping, and at the end of the tune the whole auditorium erupted into applause,” Clayton says, on the phone from LA. “It was the first time I felt a rush of energy and elevation from a group of people responding to something I played. I knew then that I’d be doing this for the rest of my life.”

Clayton’s instincts have categorically been proved correct. Still only 38, he is widely regarded as one of the most preternaturally gifted and engaging pianists of the past 20 years, a generational talent whose music deftly marries innovation with tradition – and who makes his Irish debut as leader later this month, headlining Bray Jazz Festival.

Clayton has received six Grammy nominations for his albums, solos and compositions – most jazz musicians spend a lifetime being rewarded with far less – and in 2020 he was signed to one of the most storied labels in jazz, Blue Note.


From an early age I got to go to rehearsals and sound-checks, and I could see all these passionate musicians and joyful, beautiful friendships. There was a lot of love in and around the music. That really spoke to me

—  Gerald Clayton

He has since released two captivating if contrasting albums: Happening, a hip and swinging all-star Clayton quintet recorded live at the Village Vanguard club, in New York (where he appeared as leader at the age of just 25); and Bells on Sand, a record that flows elegantly from jazz to modern classical, blues and neosoul and is perhaps the most complete statement yet of his wide-ranging artistry and enthusiasms.

The pianist has also received a number of important commissions, including a mixed-media performance exploring the rich blues traditions of the Piedmont region of the eastern United States; a musical tribute to the African-American artist and activist Charles White; and the score for the 2021 documentary film MLK/FBI.

Clayton was born into a family of musicians in the northern Los Angeles suburb of Altadena. His father, whom he describes as his most important influence – “a guiding light and great leader, endlessly resilient and positive” – is equally at home playing jazz and classical.

Having met Gerald’s mother, Christina, in the Netherlands, John moved to Europe at the beginning of the 1980s to take up a position as principal bassist with the Amsterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. Gerald was born in the Dutch city of Utrecht in 1984, and the family relocated to Los Angeles a year later. His mother, a linguistics professor, was musical too – she also grew up playing the European classical repertoire on piano.

Nearby were Gerald’s uncle Jeff Clayton, a leading saxophonist, and a community of successful musicians, including the pianist and singer Patrice Rushen and the composer and arranger Billy Childs. “From an early age I got to go to rehearsals and soundchecks, and I could see all these passionate musicians and joyful, beautiful friendships,” Clayton says. “There was a lot of love in and around the music. That really spoke to me.”

The first jazz album that similarly moved him was Oscar Peterson’s celebrated 1963 trio recording Night Train, and the Canadian pianist’s monumental virtuosity, tone and lyricism have remained primary inspirations ever since. “I pretty much played that album on repeat and could sing along with it note for note,” he says.

A love of other canonical jazz pianists followed, an education that included Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans and Brad Mehldau, and later, while he was studying jazz at the University of Southern California, influential younger players such as Robert Glasper and Jason Moran.

Clayton also listened to a lot of hip hop and R&B, and in his teens became a breakdancer. “D’Angelo, Lauryn Hill, The Fugees, The Roots – they were huge for me in high school,” he says. He also played with many of the Los Angeles musicians who would go on to form the famed West Coast Get Down jazz, funk and soul collective, including Kamasi Washington and Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner.

I compare New York to a really fast-moving river; there’s that energy and tempo of the city, that almost borderline toxic obsession with pushing yourself and the music forward, and working, working, working

His path would first take him away from Los Angeles and that world, however, and focus him increasingly on exploring the electrifying sounds of cutting-edge postbop modern jazz. Having received a series of awards and scholarships in his home city, completed his studies and joined the various jazz-and-beyond groups led by the star trumpeter Roy Hargrove, Clayton moved to New York in 2007, aged 23, and immersed himself in the city’s pulsating jazz scene.

“I made the trip to Mecca, and I did my time,” he says, laughing. “I compare New York to a really fast-moving river; there’s that energy and tempo of the city, that almost borderline-toxic obsession with pushing yourself and the music forward, and working, working, working. It was humbling getting to play with all these musicians who were so much better than me and coming from so many new and different ideas and concepts, and I’d often get wiped out. In New York I had the constant feeling of getting my butt kicked!”

But Clayton’s tremendous technique, exquisite touch and rare sensitivity – combined perhaps with his tall and athletic good looks, and warm and winning personality – soon got him noticed. During a decade in New York he made a quietly commanding impression, not just on his generation of musicians, young Turks who included Ambrose Akinmusire, Kendrick Scott, Dayna Stevens and Logan Richardson, many of whom he played and recorded with, but also on such elder masters as John Scofield and Bill Frisell.

“He keeps startling me, with his imagination, his ability to find pathways in the music, to use a song as the seed to sprout all these new branches,” says Frisell, the guitarist, who enlisted Clayton for his most recent album, Four. “It’s like the blossoming of things that I’ve never heard in a piece before, however many times I’ve played it. And it’s superinspiring. But it’s not like some intellectual effort; it seems to come from that natural singing place that Charles Lloyd sometimes talks about.”

It is with Lloyd, the venerable saxophonist and 1960s hipster, that Clayton has enjoyed his most significant association, appearing in many of the jazz visionary’s live and studio line-ups, including the free-flowing Ocean Trio with the guitarist Anthony Wilson.

“Gerald has a poetic and lyrical approach to music, and it’s been a beautiful thing to see him grow and spread his wings over the 10 years we have been collaborating,” Lloyd says. “His ears and heart have remained wide open, and somehow he manages to get on my wavelength, to step into deep water quite fearlessly – maybe because he is a surfer.”

I’ve seen some footage of surfing in Ireland and, even though I know the water’s cold and the waves can get serious, I’d love to have the chance

Clayton has been an avid surfer since his teens, and after he moved back, in 2017, to Los Angeles, to the beachside city of El Segundo, he rekindled his passion for the sport. “I live, like, five minutes from the water, so I try to get out there every day I’m home,” he says. “Not only do I love it, but the parallels with music are kind of endless. There’s the craft, the rhythm, the sort of free expression you can experience on a surfboard. It’s different every time, and you have to be able to react accordingly and find the right part of the wave. It’s so, so similar to being on the bandstand.”

Clayton is appearing on stage in Bray with a new trio that features the 21-year-old bass sensation Jermaine Paul and versatile drum maestro Gregory Hutchinson. I tell him that, serendipitously, he’s playing a festival in a place that has a strong tradition of both mounting music and riding waves: Ireland’s first surf club was established in the Co Wicklow town in 1965.

“Yes, I’ve seen some footage of surfing in Ireland, and, even though I know the water’s cold and the waves can get serious, I’d love to have the chance,” he says. “In fact, I’d really just like to tour and play gigs in surf destinations. That’s the dream!”

The Gerald Clayton Trio plays Bray Jazz Festival on Saturday, April 29th

Strength in depth at Bray Jazz Festival

The mantra about the big attribute of many a winning sports team, “strength in depth”, might equally be applied to this year’s Bray Jazz Festival, which runs from Friday, April 28th, to Sunday, April 30th. Everywhere you look in the 2023 line-up, expertly programmed by Cormac Larkin of this parish, you discover quality, diversity and surprise.

Certainly, as in previous years, there are striking acts from beyond these shores – stellar quartets, for example, led by the fine jazz-meets-folk-meets-classical Swedish bassist Lars Danielsson and the protean and poetic German pianist Julia Hülsmann, who’s been known to interpret songs by Bowie, Prince and Feist.

Also worth seeking out are What’s New, an irresistible UK trio of the singer Ian Shaw, the saxophonist Iain Ballamy and the pianist Jamie Safir; Skylla, Ruth Goller’s adventurous London-based bass-guitar-plus-voices project; and Elemental Quartet, a multinational free-flowing jazz and chamber-music ensemble.

At the same time, the festival features a characteristically impressive programme of concerts by leading (and often world-class) Irish artists, both as opening and stand-alone acts, many of which are free.

Highlights include the bassist Ronan Guilfoyle’s intriguing, newly composed 96 Miles tribute to Miles Davis; the saxophonist Michael Buckley’s potent new Ebb and Flow quartet; the joyous drums and bass-saxophone duo Insufficient Funs; the outstanding singers Honor Heffernan, Suzanne Savage and Aoife Doyle; and the drummer Sean Carpio’s exhilarating Bog Bodies trio.

Overall, it’s a dream fixture for any open-eared music fan.

Philip Watson’s biography, Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer: The Guitarist Who Changed the Sound of American Music, has just been published in paperback by Faber