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Ideas flow freely from Gerald Clayton's piano

Howard Reich

9:35 AM CDT, May 24, 2013

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To pianist Gerald Clayton, the musical idea is paramount, the tune secondary.

Meaning that every piece he plays, whether an original or a standard, represents his exploration of a concept in sound rather than the mere recitation of a melody or a series of chord changes. That approach makes Clayton one of the most engaging and promising young pianists in jazz, as he reaffirmed Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase, where he's leading a trio through Sunday.

Each composition that Clayton played opened in a startling fashion, then quickly headed off into another musical direction entirely, before returning to the original thought – or not. The man seems incapable of lingering too long in one musical place or overstating a theme or delivering a cliched turn of phrase. He's too intellectually restless for that.

He opened his first set in chorale-like fashion, the solemnity of his delicately voiced chords suggesting something you'd sooner expect to encounter in church than in a jazz room. Before long, he was veering off into remote harmonic regions not even hinted at during the outset of "Like Water," from his newly released album "Life Forum." For all the complexity of this music, however, the directness of Clayton's expression and unpretentiousness of his delivery made it easily accessible to anyone.

It took quite awhile before Clayton even hinted at the melodic contours of the venerable "My Shining Hour," the pianist deconstructing the song from the start. Over time, shards of its familiar phrases jutted out from the swirl of sound he produced, with lithe and nimble counterpoint from bassist Joe Sanders and fleet gestures from drummer Justin Brown.

In "Some Always," also from "Life Forum," Clayton essentially built an entire composition on a rolling rhythmic motif. No matter how far afield his melodic flights took him, no matter how ornate his right-hand figurations became, that slowly surging rhythmic idea served as the gravitational center of the piece. Here, too, bassist Sanders and drummer Brown amplified the effect, their imperturbable rhythms anchoring Clayton's intricate keyboard variations.

Lest all of this sound a bit rarefied and abstruse, Clayton reminded listeners that he can deliver a ballad with considerable poetry, as he did in Duke Ellington's "Prelude to a Kiss." Here was high romanticism of a sort one might not have expected from a free thinker such as Clayton, his gently arpeggiated chords recalling a much earlier era in jazz pianism, even as Clayton's improvisational choices referenced the present, as well.

In his "Bootleg Bruise," Clayton and the trio offered what amounted to an exercise in rhythmic tension, the repeated notes at the core of the piece driving it relentlessly forward. But the excitement of this performance also pointed to how much of the evening's music had been cast in hazy tones and dreamy moods. A bit more energy would enhance an already alluring performance.

Clayton offered a few more sparks in the set's finale, Bud Powell's "Celia," a jazz classic re-envisioned by a pianist who hears music differently than most.

Gerald Clayton Trio
When
: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday
Where
: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.
Admission
: $20-$30; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com

hreich@tribune.com | Twitter @howardreich