Pianist and composer Gerald Clayton has delivered one of this year’s most gorgeous albums with Bells on Sand, an artful look at the vicissitudes of time, rendered with a lean cast performing solo, duo, or trio tracks. This goes in a completely different direction than Clayton’s Blue Note debut, Happening: Live at the Village Vanguard, covered on these pages, when he was swinging through a set of originals and standards with a formidable quintet. Here, joining the leader, are his dad, the near-legendary John Clayton on bass, a longtime friend and peer, drummer Justin Brown, his mentor, saxophonist Charles Lloyd, on just one track, and emerging vocalist MARO, who appears twice. Essentially, this is calm, dreamy music that one can easily get lost in that becomes increasingly spiritual as the evolves, symbolic even in terms of the accompanying musicians with his dad and Lloyd representing the elders, Brown the present, and MARO the future.
Beginning with the trio rendered “Water’s Edge” we first hear Clayton’s dark chords merging with his dad’s solemn arco bass before Brown enters, gently caressing his cymbals, prompting a brighter, spare but ultimately shimmering sequence from the pianist. This is Clayton’s musical way of connoting the changing shapes of sand at any particular moment. Two others with contrasting and drifting moods are his two solo renderings of “My Ideal,” composed by Richard Whiting, Leo Robin, and Newell Chase, to connote the meandering swell of emotions during the solitude-induced pandemic period.
Clayton also can’t help but share his decade-long obsession with Catalan composer Frederico Mompou’s music, committing it to record for the first time, essentially interpreting his two compositions faithfully but with some instrumental changes. Mompou, who comes from a family of bell makers is the linchpin to the album concept as the first piano notes of the duet with his bassist dad, John Clayton, on “Elegia” sound much like the ringing of a bell before it segues seamlessly into “Paisajes II. El Lago” where Gerald uses vibraphone and electric piano to differentiate it from Mompou’s original along with MARO’s gorgeous vocals. Likening the bell to the human voice and the sand to the constant movement and shifting of time, the latter piece, as much as any, speaks to his inspiration for the album.
We hear the vibraphone and electric piano again in the two duo pieces with Justin Brown, the first, also with organ, is “That Roy,” in dedication to the late trumpeter Roy Hargrove, a mentor from Clayton’s early years in NY. Brown’s steady beats and Clayton’s shimmering harmonics straddle the solemn and brighter aspects of tribute while the second piece, the trance-like, stuck in one place “Rip,” is a vehicle more for Brown to play inventively and shape what at its core is a relatively shapeless melody, akin to one of those daydreaming afternoons where you’re at a loss to explain how time passed so quickly and unnoticeably. These two pieces as well as the bookended “My Ideal” work to set up the standout, lush piano-vocal duet “Just a Dream,” as MARO tenderly half sings and half whispers Gerald’s lyrics about love and parenthood. The floating, airy timbre of her vocal evokes the early work of Flora Purim, at least to this writer. The approach is indicative of the advice Clayton shares with young pianists – “Don’t sing what you play, play what you sing.”
The longest piece at eight minutes and the one most likely to draw the most attention is Clayton’s duet with his mentor and one of today’s leading spiritual jazz voices, Charles Lloyd, in the expansive, sublime Clayton penned poignant ballad “Invocation for Peace.” The chemistry between the two long-time bandmates is so remarkably in synch as they reflect and react to each other’s lines. While it may not have the lasting power as some of Coltrane’s iconic ballads such as “Alabama” or “Dear Lord,” this belongs in that same conversation. It would seem that Clayton has little choice but continues in a spiritual vein as he exits solo in memory of the composer, his uncle Jeff Clayton, in the hymn to love and hope, “There Is Music Where You’re Going My Friends.” If that ‘music’ is anything close to what we hear in these ten selections, we are likely headed to a heavenly place.