Gerald Clayton’s ‘Tributary Tales’ is music for a weary soul

Jazz pianist composes otherworldly soundtrack to connect us all

“Even though we’re all separate streams, we all come from the same ocean… I’d love for the music on this record to remind people of our interconnectedness.” CREDIT: Keith Major

What an awesome way to make a mark. For jazz composer-pianist Gerald Clayton, the only way. His new album is Tributary Tales, and it’s out now on Motéma Music.

A loose concept album about the ebb and flow inherent in all of us, the 14-track instrumental/Spoken Word Tributary Tales features Clayton at his intuitive, collective best.

The son of legendary jazz bassist John Clayton and nephew of saxophonist Jeff Clayton, Gerald takes the universal meaning-of-life theme to a higher level, with a crew of like-minded adventure-seekers.

They include DownBeat vocal sensation Sachal Vasandani on “Squinted,” poets Aja Monet and Carl Hancock Rux on the yin/yang poetry of “Lovers Reverie” and the soul-stirring finale, “Dimensions: Interwoven,” along with some of the best sidemen around.

The album’s loaded with sax-ual head hunters (Dayna Stephens, Logan Richardson, Ben Wendel) and beleaguered, hungry beatniks (Henry Cole, Gabriel Lugo, Justin Brown), but Clayton never gets lost in the shuffle, or the lofty ideals and ambitions of his new music.

It’s only when you get to that mind-altering finale that you realize just how deep Clayton’s tributaries go.

“I feel like the various encounters in my life are in their own way tributaries — like every trip is somehow an opportunity to discover a new type of bend in the river,” Clayton explained in a recent DL Media release. “The various places, people, foods and cultures I’ve been able to experience in my travels, all the musicians I gathered for this project and all the songs I’ve written — there’s a feeling of connectedness between them, even though they’re all their own separate entities.”

“If we all just take a step back, we can see that all human experience is essentially the same — the suffering, the will to transcend that suffering, our joys, our sorrows—they’re all connected. I’d love for the music on this record to remind people of our interconnectedness.”

Clayton’s compositions kind of sneak up on you, a message in a message in a bottle floating out in the atmosphere until you pick up on one or two streams of consciousness in a reverential piano line on “Are We,” or go hog wild with an amazing display of jazz showmanship on the opening, percussive-heavy track, “Unforeseen.”

Everything’s laid out in the open, big and boast-worthy. These musicians have got the goods. They know how to put on a fiery show, hitting all the discordant notes with authority, while stitching in little bits of themselves in every nuanced bit of tempo, tone, and inflection — a well-oiled, top-notch, New York style, modern jazz, man-machine set to stun.

By the time “Dimensions: Interwoven” slips in at the end, you really aren’t sure quite what to make of all this … expertise, strong, pleasant, intricate, layered and alternately parallel smashing, crashing music meant to evoke attitude for days.

“Dimensions: Interwoven” sears past attitude, thought, and the focused action/reaction logic we rely on as functioning humans. Humanized with the Spoken Word dialogue melted into pretty ballerina-meets-Star-Trek music and narrative-poetry, this parting shot lingers in the heart and in the soul.

The Spoken Word exchange by these two refined, restrained poets loosely references the past with the future, physical hardship (field) juxtaposed with mental confusion (“imagination imagined us”). The interplay reminds you of the inner conversations you have with yourself, or on a higher level, perhaps that talk with God, your spirit guide, reminding you of your higher mission, gently chastising you to remember what you already know about how to proceed in/in spite of this life.

“When I’m in the experience of creating something, I try to open my ears and to be as selfless and open as possible.” CREDIT: Photo courtesy of artist, used with permission

On the surface, it’s a track that you could easily dismiss as another weak Spoken Word piece attempting to masquerade as New Age jazz. But don’t go there. Listen with an open mind, especially after an arduous day tasked with the things that don’t matter (a fruitless meeting, an argument with a neighbor, rush hour traffic, piling debt, the political banter of digital refugees).

Clayton mixes in the right parts of a perfectly evocative formula for the most effective track on the album, the one driving home his tributary point: Visceral poetry combines with beautiful, sepia-toned piano lines, as if from a little girl’s open jewelry box in the 1970s, which quickly segues into a short series of robotic chirps.

Then, this, from a voice representing humankind, stripped of any defensive posturing (born of too many years of nature/nurture), and sounding an awful lot like another singular Spoken Word/jazz artist (Somi):

“I just want to be free. I want, love. I want to live an honest life, a room of my own, a roof over my head, arms to be held in, and babies to be fed…”

A male voice responds to the human call — raw and free of artifice and ego — with short, symbolic prompts, a parable of wisdom tempered with compassion, as this woman lays bare her soul’s deepest yearning.

The short responses feel more like prompts, atypical of a conversation. They are, instead, indicative of symbolic illustrations meant to jar our memories from as far back as our ancestors.

Each prompt inspires the female toward greater enlightenment, until she sees what she’s made of, the burdens of life’s heavy artillery lifted.

“…Can you hear, my wings spreading against the wind? … There’s a way about the world — ”

“A room.”

“…that makes me want, another one. — ”

“A phosphorescent glow.”

“To think it one day, and be it another.”

“Filled with uselessness.”

“I want — ”

“Contrivances?”

“To live.”

“Dimensions: Interwoven” pierces the veil of Clayton’s life experiences set to music, down to the core of our purpose — a tremendous feat for a young jazz artist making his own statement.

You don’t know how this works to free the mind to roam until you’ve listened to the entire album from start to finish, about 10–12 times, while trying to separate your current dilemmas with what’s in front of you.

The best description for Gerald Clayton’s new jazz album is that listening for a spell will distill and coalesce what matters for an ADD world: true transcendence.

“I can point to those moments in life when the experience feels otherworldly, almost like a taste of transcendence: A bowl of pasta in Italy, falling in love, making a connection with a new friend from another part of the world, surfing — the feeling of tapping into the energy of the ocean and dancing with it — those are all really special moments and, in their own way, artistic beauty. As is making music, connecting with the musicians I play with. All those experiences connect to one another and feel similarly spiritual.”

Artist quotes from a DL Media press release.