Young Chicago pianist Rob Clearfield gets ready for his close-up

For the past few years, a remarkable young Chicago pianist has enriched the work of some of this city's most creative jazz musicians.

Without him, Matt Ulery's breakthrough double-album of last year, "By a Little Light," and Ulery's striking new follow-up as well, "Wake an Echo," would have lost some of its harmonic beauty and tonal sheen. Similarly, the ethereal work of singer Grazyna Auguscik and the jagged-edge playing of alto saxophonist Greg Ward have been deepened significantly by the contributions of pianist Rob Clearfield.

He has been producing so much important work for so many of Chicago's most adventurous jazz artists, in fact, that he hasn't had time to cast a spotlight where it belongs: on his own music.

Until now. On Saturday evening, Clearfield will celebrate the release of his first recording as bandleader, "The Long and Short of It," an album every bit as lyrical, edgy, poetic and genre-defying as his work as a sideman foretold.

The question is: How has Clearfield conceived an unusual musical language that somehow embraces the easygoing melodicism of pop, the cerebral intensity of classical music and the freewheeling spirit of jazz improvisation?

"I strive to listen widely," says Clearfield, 28, who was born in the Chicago area and has developed his career and music entirely here.

"As far as this record in question and the writing and the overall group sound, I'm really into Ben Monder and Kurt Rosenwinkel," adds Clearfield, pointing to guitarists who are redefining the harmonic possibilities of jazz – especially Rosenwinkel.

"One thing I love about those guys is that when they lay down a piece, the piece has a real sound. All the harmonies and all the voicings – there's a specific tonal landscape to the piece. Even when they get really far out in the improvising, they never really stray from the central thread."

The same can be said of the tonal landscape of "The Long and Short of It," which conveys Clearfield's signature fervent lyricism and a rock-tinged esthetic fleshed out by guitarist John Kregor, tenor saxophonist Scott Burns, percussionist Eric Montzka and bassist Patrick Mulcahy. Surprisingly, Clearfield's statements on acoustic and electric piano often hover in the background, yet his influence is unmistakable in the understatement of this music, as well as its uncategorizable nature.

Clearfield attributes this unorthodox manner to a variety of sources, some less predictable than others.

"As far as my own playing, I'm a big fan of (Johannes) Brahms as much as any other composer," says Clearfield, referencing the 19th century giant whose romanticism is unmistakably undergirded by the musical structures of an earlier classicism.

"I love how he's very serious, but without taking himself too seriously. He's not like (Franz) Liszt, as great as he is, who's going to wear a cape," quips Clearfield, referring to the romantic pianist-composer whose outward manner was as flamboyant as his music was exhibitionistic. Clearfield clearly hues closer to the more tempered – though still emotionally intense – expressions of Brahms, and you can hear that in Clearfield's music, even though it's articulated in a jazz-pop syntax.

"In a similar way, a couple of my jazz piano influences are Herbie Hancock and Brad Mehldau," continues Clearfield. "Those guys also are like Rosenwinkel and Monder: Everything is connected, everything is coming from that first seed of improvisation. They start with an idea, and everything else comes from that starting place."

But Clearfield also credits the unique nature of his musical vocabulary to the Chicagoans he has assisted, most notably bassist Ulery, whom he has known for the past decade; singer Auguscik, who seems to revel in the musical surprises he throws her way; and, especially, saxophonist Ward: "From the first note, he's so inspiring," says Clearfield, "and he's so good that when he plays, I want to rise to his level."

Clearfield studied music at Roosevelt University for a couple of years until he found himself in such demand that there wasn't enough time to study and perform. He had to make a choice, and his decision to apply himself completely to performing, collaborating and recording with various musicians has benefited listeners in Chicago and well beyond.

For all his credits, though, Clearfield feels that "The Long and Short of It" marks a turning point for him.

"A teacher once said to me … 'You don't really start playing the kind of jazz you're really going to play until you're 30,'" recalls Clearfield. "There's something about life experience and all that.

"And now that I'm in my late 20s, I'm starting to get a glimpse of that, too. If you allow it to happen, there's a voice that emerges. You don't have to force it out of you."

In Clearfield's case, it seems to emerge quite naturally, the flow of his circuitous melody lines and distinctiveness of his harmonic palette representing a fresh voice in jazz.

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