Six-time GRAMMY nominated artist Gerald Clayton returns with Bells On Sand, his ravishing second album for Blue Note Records. Recorded at Sam First in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara Sound Design, the album features ten tracks of fresh orchestration and original music with contributions from mentor Charles Lloyd on saxophone, father John Clayton on bass, longtime friend and peer Justin Brown on drums, and new collaborator MARO on vocals. Together, they explore the impact and abstraction of time.
"Each musician on the record represents a different aspect of the axis of time and its shifting sands," says the acclaimed pianist-composer. "My father and Charles Lloyd, who has been a mentor figure to me, reflect new permutations of my past, and the lineage of elders who have shaped my development; Justin Brown, being my contemporary and musical brother, represents my present; and MARO represents the future - she is part of the next generation, and points to a brand new collaboration."
Unadorned intimacy shapes the music. Clayton's desire to share more of himself with listeners and fellow artists wields heady influence over his musical choices and his thoughtful curation of the entire album. But most striking is his ability to create quiet chambers for all four artists to be themselves. Bells On Sand opens in pensive resonance with "Water's Edge". The slow-peeling composition first spotlights Clayton's relationship with John's arco, tapered and doleful, before Brown transforms the duo into a trio. Each original tune, as well as Whiting and Chase's "My Ideal", honors Clayton's journey through solitude in 2020. Both takes of "My Ideal" - two of three solo gestures - capture entirely different emotional arcs, bending in and out of time, equal in their honesty.
For the past decade, music from Catalan composer Federico Mompou has possessed Clayton, in listening and practice. Beauty and precision of those tenderly unfolding melodies would follow the bicoastal artist from his shared apartment in Harlem to his airy one bedroom in West LA. Despite his spending so much time with the material, Bells On Sand documents Clayton's first recording of Mompou's music, offering lush, understated interpretations of "Elegia" and "Damunt de tu Només les Flors".
"Mompou's music is laid out so masterfully, so economical in the spread of his voicings, that it feels a bit unnecessary to add anything original to it," says Clayton. "My attempts at composing melodies over his harmonies, for instance, felt underwhelming. Id inevitably return to what he'd written." Though his treatment of Mompou's works is true to the composer's intention, Clayton sought textural orchestration outside their traditional context: electric piano, vibraphone, arco bass, drums and percussion. Coming from a maternal family of bell makers, Mompou becomes a grounding symbol for Bells On Sand, but the title also signals something less explicit yet entirely universal.
Similar textures appear on "That Roy" and "Rip", duo pieces between Clayton and Brown. He composed the former in tribute to the recently departed Roy Hargrove - an unparalleled mentor and friend from Clayton's early years in New York - aligning with themes of loss and gratitude; the latter serves, in part, as a vessel for Brown's sensitive and near meditative development. "The melody is just this shape swimming around, stuck in one place," says Clayton. "It never really breaks free. Justin understood the truth and tension of that concept - I didn't really have to give him any direction. He just gets it."
One pearl Clayton drops before young pianists is "Don't sing what you play, play what you sing." Vocalizing informs his method for approaching composed melodies and improvising new ones. The lyricism listeners have come to cherish in his music takes frank form on "Just A Dream". With almost whispered tenderness, MARO delivers Clayton's song - music and lyrics - about love and parenthood.
Bells On Sand culminates in sprawling duo with Lloyd on "Invocation For Peace". The younger Blue Note artist has been a relative fixture on the elder's tour schedule since 2013. Together, they've developed deep empathy and intuition for each other's musical tendencies and spontaneous turns. Ending on a note of divinity and soul-searched resolve, Jeff Clayton's "There Is Music Where You're Going My Friends" is a hymn to love and hope, recorded in memory of his beloved uncle.
"I hope these reflections encourage people to step back and recognize that our testaments - songs, stories, intentions - lay atop an ever-shifting landscape," says Clayton. "To look at things from this zoomed-out perspective might allow for a union between past, present, and future. It might allow us to embrace the totality of our life experience. That we may consider the lessons from our past when living the present moment in a way that serves the future."
There's a spiritual, imagistic quality to much of the album that has the feel of a '70s ECM recording. On the opening 'Water's Edge,' Clayton frames his father's mournful bowed bass lines with slow storm-cloud chords and the gathering rumble of Brown's drumming before trickling in a shimmering rainbow of organ. Equally languid moments follow, as in Clayton's take on Catalan composer Federico Mompou's 'Damunt de tu Només les Flors,' a sleepy, tango-esque lullaby sung with romantic sadness by MARO. Particularly rapturous is 'Peace Invocation,' a shimmering noir daydream in which Clayton's warm piano bakes like late-afternoon sun against Lloyd's dusky tenor sax shadow.
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.
- Vinyl LP
- Made in Germany
- Water's Edge feat. John Clayton & Justin Brown
- Elegia feat. John Clayton
- Damunt de tu Només les Flors feat. MARO, John Clayton & Justin Brown
- My Ideal 1
- That Roy feat. Justin Brown
- Rip feat. Justin Brown
- Just A Dream feat. MARO
- My Ideal 2
- Peace Invocation feat. Charles Lloyd
- There Is Music Where You're Going My Friends