A trio of cutting-edge Jazz at Naz intimate concerts takes jazz’s temperature and points to the art form’s future. Hungry for the potent experience live music brings, jazz fans (safely distanced and masked) will encounter, over the course of one weekend, a blazing sextet, a sensual vocalist, and a scintillating up-and-coming pianist from Havana. The place to be is The Soraya, in the house’s jazz-club setting. In February, it will sizzle with some of the coolest—and hottest—jazz talent in the ether today.
The first two performances have much in common. Two collaborating artists will each have a unique showcase for their work. Pianist/composer Gerald Clayton opens the jazz weekend of Jazz at Naz on Thursday, February 7. Although born in The Netherlands, Clayton is of Los Angeles origin and upbringing. As versatile as he is accomplished, his immersion in the classical jazz repertory was on recent display at Disney Concert Hall in his concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic playing the music of Duke Ellington. Under his own aegis, Clayton works with some of the most vital contemporary jazz musicians on both coasts. At The Soraya, he’ll front alto saxophonist Logan Richardson, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Joshua Crumbly and drummer Justin Brown. They’re all familiar names in New York jazz and amazingly, like Clayton, they’re all in varying stages of relocating to Los Angeles.
Clayton was born to make music. Son of the celebrated bassist, composer and bandleader John Clayton, Gerald attended the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. At USC, he studied intensively with pianist and composer Billy Childs. “Billy challenged me,” Clayton says. “He gave me assignments that were way out of my comfort zone. Write a string quartet? Really?!? My strengths (I always thought) have been as a player. But Billy gave me the courage to give composition a go.”
Clayton also worked one-on-one for a year with veteran pianist Kenny Barron at the Manhattan School of Music. “I had a lot of questions for Kenny,” he says, “but it always led to the piano. He’d say, ‘Man, just play.’ I think he has the best time of any pianist. When he puts his hands to the keyboard, he doesn’t have a single nerve in his body.”
The bands of the late trumpeter Roy Hargrove (who died in 2018) and tenor saxophone guru Charles Lloyd were tough proving grounds for the young Clayton. “The classroom is great,” Clayton says, “but I’ve been blessed by being around the elders of the music—pretty much since I was born. There’s nothing like getting your butt kicked on the bandstand. Roy was ferocious in taking us through the music. And with Charles, you always feel his love for Charlie Parker and Lester Young, and that rootedness to the blues.”
With his Sextet, the four-time Grammy-nominated Clayton is a bit like a musical lion tamer in a cage of big cats. His players are all mature stylists, and usually bandleaders themselves. “I don’t have to think too much about managing the music with these guys,” Clayton says. “My approach is about creating platforms where they can fly their own flags. I just let them go, and soak up as much of what they do as I can.” Soraya jazz-niks may like to warm up with Clayton’s most recent album, Happening: Live at the Village Vanguard, which marks the beginning of his association with the Blue Note label.
Serendipity strikes when Gerald Clayton again appears at Jazz at Naz’s second concert, that of singer Gretchen Parlato. There is no sound in contemporary jazz like Parlato’s. Her mercurial timbre comes right out of the moment, and is acutely attuned to her collaborators—Clayton on piano, Ben Williams, and drummer Mark Giuliana, her husband. Improvisation is at the heart of her band dynamic. “You practice together,” she says, “and you develop a vocabulary surrounding the material. But you never know where it’s going onstage. It’s an incredible thrill to create with musicians like Gerald, Ben and Mark.”
Parlato grew up in the San Fernando Valley. Her father, David Parlato, was a working jazz bassist, recording in the Hollywood studios, and playing in the bands of Don Ellis and Frank Zappa. “I grew up in a very art-oriented family,” she says. “Everybody had some talent, and most everyone was an artist of some kind.” Parlato had one strong advantage, “My family actually saw music as a valid profession.”
After she became a fixture in New York City, Parlato sporadically appeared at SoCal venues. She came of age performing in Valley jazz clubs like Spazio, Ca Del Sole and La Ve Lee with pianist Guilherme Vergueiro and others. The grace and floating, linear freedom in Brazilian music is a part of her musical gestalt. In 2004, Parlato was the first vocalist accepted to the Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition, and she won first place in her category.
Studying earnestly with singer Tierney Sutton, Parlato learned that, “Tierney works from inside of the song. She taught me to find the center of the note, and to find the truth of my own voice. She never gave me a roadmap; she just let me find my own way.” Jazz Bakery owner and singer Ruth Price was another of her teachers. “Gretchen was in the first class I taught at UCLA,” Price says, “and I was immediately struck by her musicality. She was already so far ahead of the others.”
As part of the Monk Institute program (now the Herbie Hancock Institute) on the USC campus, Parlato interacted with the school’s music students, among them, Clayton. “Gerald was young,” she says, “but you knew that he was destined for big things. When we were both on the New York scene, he was the pianist to call. And now we’re all back here.”
Parlato’s current album Flor (Edition) has garnered strong reviews and a Grammy nomination. It features redesigned songs by other composers, some piano cameo appearances from Clayton, and her original tunes. “I like to rearrange standards,” she says. “I’m a perfectionist, and it took me a long time to trust myself with lyric-writing. But if I lock myself long enough in a room with a piano, I always know when the words are right for the song.”
Kirk Silsbee publishes promiscuously on jazz and culture.
Gerald Clayton | Jazz at Naz, The Soraya | Thurs Feb 17
Gretchen Parlato | Jazz at Naz, The Soraya | Fri Feb 18