Gerald Clayton is a talented under 30 jazz pianist with a growing body of work as a sideman and as a session leader. On albums co-led by his dad and uncle bassist John and saxophonist Jeff Clayton, the young Clayton has proven he can stomp with the big boys. No one familiar with his work would dispute he's undeserving of the accolades and press he’s received at this leg of his development.
As a session leader, Clayton is laid-back and he likes to cook original music. And he's comfortable playing at a cruise-control tempo, which is fine and works. Clayton plays beautifully, and stylistically he’s indebted to the jazz pianist Brad Mehldau. The downside to being infatuated over one player or one particular style is it’s hard to break. Clayton is stuck in this Mehldau phase.
Clayton’s albums “two-shades” and “Bond the Paris sessions” were excellent but not breakthroughs. Last month, Concord Records released Clayton’s debut for the label “Life Forum,” which many who had their eye on Clayton for a while hoped would be that breakthrough.
Sadly, “Life Forum” is a letdown. Clayton borrowed from the pages of the pianist Robert Glasper's and the bassist Esperanza Spalding's playbook. Two players of Clayton's class restless with pure jazz. They are into deluding jazz with other genres. “Life Forum” is all over the place, or an experiment gone awry.
It’s within Clayton’s rights to stretch out or to challenge himself by experimenting with bigger groups. Honestly, Clayton was coming along swimmingly with his trio bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Justin Brown. It's hard these days to fine a good down to earth jazz trio album. Clayton had the right mix.
“Life Forum” has some special guests. There’s several cuts with vocalists Gretchen Parlato and Sachal Vasandani. Both are wonderful and have impressive works as leaders. Unfortunately, Clayton didn’t give them anything exciting to do.
Both are a bore on this album. On “Dusk Baby,” Vasandani sounds like smooth jazz vocalist Michael Franks, a career bore. And Clayton teaming Parlato and Sachal on “Like Water” seemed sensible on paper but the result would make a caffeine junky drowsy. On other cuts, Clayton relegated them to nothing more than background vocalists.