Gerald Clayton’s infectiously heartfelt energy filled the jazz club and bar of the Black Cat on Oct. 23. Clayton soulfully riffed on an enormous piano with support from bassist Harish Raghavan and drummer Genius Wesley. While throwing their bodies into their playing, the jazz musicians’ infectious passion for their playing caused every head to nod, toe to tap and heart to swell with jazzy jubilation.
The night’s theme was a “marriage of old and new of this music thing,” Clayton said. A six-time Grammy-nominated pianist, he was magnetizing on stage. With a smooth baritone voice, Clayton’s music and manner steeped the Black Cat in a warm, intimate energy as he cracked jokes before the set.
Orange and yellow beams of light warmed the stage; a disco ball slowly spun from the ceiling, stunningly setting the scene for a jazz performance. The energy shifted, however, as all three musicians set themselves before the first ballad, “Patience Patients,” from Clayton’s latest album Tributary Tales. The song’s slow ramp-up was hypnotizing, as each instrument had its own melody yet blended together.
Immediately, the crowd was captivated. Clayton steered the ship of the melody as its tempo went from enticingly relaxed to upbeat, and he seemed to surface from his own world as the track ended. All three musicians paused, allowing the crowd’s impassioned cheers to inspire them, before launching into their second improvisational song — one that set out to bring the crowd into the world Clayton had crafted.
Clayton creates music to bond over. The millennial-dominated crowd was incredibly engaged with the trio and in polite conversation with each other. The twists and turns in each improvised piece elicited consistently jovial claps and cheers.
The dynamic between the performers also had a hold on the audience. Wesley was a classically jazzy mix of power and balance in his supporting and spotlighted moments. Raghavan’s fingers powerfully plucked at the neck of the double bass. His eyes were closed for the majority of the concert as he escaped to a better place and listened for a way to reveal it to the audience.
While communicating through nods and glances on stage, the piano, double bass and drums alternated between supporting each other and getting carried away with the bliss of their individual melodies. Clayton, Raghavan and Wesley conveyed that jazz is music you feel as they each soared through their spotlight moments.
Before beginning the third song, Clayton chatted with the beguiled audience. To again marry the past and present, Clayton brought out an electronic keyboard and sound mixer to complement the group’s acoustic instruments.
The keys emitted digitized notes that were still distinctively jazzy. As the drums and bass joined in, the group played a spectacularly blended tune and simply cruised. Each performer got lost in the music, floating notes and adding their own flair to the piece; the unexpected tune was punctuated with recurring support from Clayton’s sound mixer.
Clayton’s fingers flew across the acoustic piano before coasting back to the electric keyboard for the improvised piece’s finale. The musicians rode a wave of inspiration that built throughout the ballad. There seemed to be no apex as the song rolled and rolled, becoming increasingly experimental. Clayton closed with an amazingly timed, gorgeously discordant conclusion emphasizing the convergence of the acoustic and digital instrumentals.
After the tune rolled to a stop, the group transitioned to a very low, very slow piece. Clayton’s piano notes glided to the forefront while the bass and drums emphasized his flourishes, making his artistry all the more apparent. The set’s bouncy final song highlighted Raghavan on the double bass, before launching into a perpetually crescendoing finish.
Clayton’s Black Cat performance was emblematic of jazz’s passing of passion. His romantically smooth improvisation is so distinctive that it almost becomes its own genre — no matter what subset of jazz style he plays. The dichotomy between his music’s valleys, idealizing the simple act of sitting and appreciating music, and its peaks, spurring an audience to its feet, resounding with applause, is unparalleled.