Keyboard legend Chick Corea and rising star Gerald Clayton discuss their music and mutual admiration society
The two jazz dynamos perform with their bands in San Diego on the same night, giving fans an abundance of concurrent musical riches
There is a 43-year age difference between jazz-and-beyond icon Chick Corea and rising star Gerald Clayton. But the mutual admiration between these two genre-leaping keyboard dynamos — who each perform in San Diego on the same night next week at separate concerts with their respective bands — easily transcends time.
“He’s an amazing young musician,” Corea, 78, said of Clayton, who performs a Wednesday Athenaeum Jazz at TSRI concert with his quartet.
“Gerald is one of the guys who inspires me when I hear him. He has his own way of doing it and finding his own voice. And he’s a very bright guy. I really like him a lot, and I love his playing.”
Clayton, 35, is even more effusive, to the point that he suggested this article should focus more on 22-time Grammy Award winner Corea than on him.
“Chick is a legend — the maestro! — and has been a huge inspiration for me since I was a teenager,” said four-time Grammy nominee Clayton of Corea, who performs Wednesday at the Balboa Theater with his band Trilogy.
“Talk about forging your own way in the music and truly having your own voice on the instrument! It’s incredible to witness Chick in concert, which I most recently did in Europe. His devotion to the moment is really special, and he’s willing to share all of himself in his music. He’s absolutely a hero of mine.”
By coincidence, not only are Corea and Clayton both taking the stage here Wednesday, their performances open the fall seasons of, respectively, the Athenaeum Jazz at TSRI concert series and the La Jolla Music Society’s fall season.
‘In rhythm with the ocean’
These two acclaimed keyboardists also have a shared loved of water activities, albeit not the same ones.
Corea swims daily, be it in the ocean near his Florida home, in a pool, or anywhere convenient when he’s on tour. Clayton, who recently moved back to his native Los Angeles from New York, is an avid surfer. His return to Southern California was inspired in part to have daily access to nearby waves.
“Swimming is one of my go-to exercises,” said Corea, who looks considerably younger than his age.
“I have some other exercises for my posture, very simple exercises, that keep you upright and keep back pain away,” he continued. “We’ve become such a sedentary society sitting at computers and pianos, and on planes and buses. So I try to balance that with enough exercise, in particular swimming. Not bad, so far!”
Does Corea ever get musical ideas while swimming?
“If I’m working on a new piece and not near the piano, I’ll use my imagination and my ability to project an orchestra or a trio (in my mind), and I’ll run them through their paces. It’s kind of the same thing I do at a keyboard, except without a keyboard! But if I’m swimming, I like to just swim.”
Clayton, similarly, likes to surf.
“I try to get out in the water every day when I’m home,” he said, speaking from his Los Angeles home.
“The ocean is very cleansing and clearing. It feels like nothing really matters when you’re a speck of dust floating in the ocean. Surfing feels like an endless journey, the same way music does. On a really good day, when you’re in rhythm with the ocean and are in just the perfect spot, there’s something about the flow that is comparable to the flow in music.”
That flow, and the exciting new musical vistas they can open for performers and listeners alike, is a constant for both Corea and Clayton as instrumentalists, composers and band leaders. Their respective histories are a testament to their skill, ingenuity and constant sense of aural adventure.
Corea’s credits at the time already included collaborations with such greats as Mongo Santamaria, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and former San Diego vibraphonist Dave Pike, as well two classic 1968 solo albums, “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs” and “Tones for Joan’s Bones.”
By 1972, he was leading the first edition of Return To Forever, a genre-leaping band that would have an enormous impact — Prince was a big fan — in that decade and beyond. Corea’s stylistic versatility has seen him expertly perform with an array of jazz giants and symphony orchestras, as well as everyone from classical piano superstar Lang Lang and Cat Stevens to the rock band Foo Fighters and banjo marvel Béla Fleck.
Corea is currently working on two commissioned pieces: a trombone concerto for the New York Philharmonic and a a piece commemorating Hungarian composer Béla Bartok. The latter will be performed by Corea’s current band, which teams him with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade. Their superb new Concord Jazz album, the 2-CD live set “Trilogy 2,” is the sequel to their 3-CD live set, 2014’s “Trilogy.”
“The way I continue to increase my skills is to add a skill I don’t have,” Corea said, speaking from the Florida home he shares with his wife, former Return To Forever and Mahavishnu Orchestra singer singer Gayle Moran. “And the way you add a skill is by hard work, like anything else. You roll up your sleeves, get into it and do it, rather than theorize about it.
“If I’m not learning some new skills, or honing my existing skills, I’m dead. If there’s not some new challenge to open up another vista in life, I’m dead. Otherwise, why get up in the morning? So I’m learning and growing, and I’m more passionate than ever.”
Composing and stretching
Clayton was born in Holland. He is the son of bassist John Clayton, who is the co-leader of the top-ranked Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and encouraged his son to explore music at an early age.
A classically trained pianist, Gerald often performed with his father’s quartet growing up. Much in demand as a keyboardist for recording dates and concerts, the younger Clayton has collaborated with a broad range of artists. His most notable musical partners have included sax legend Charles Lloyd, Diana Krall, former Miles Davis guitarist John Scofield, Michael Bublé, trumpeter Roy Hargrove and the Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour ensemble, for which he served as music director in 2016 and 2017.
Like Corea, Clayton is also a commissioned composer. In 2016, he performed the music he wrote for for the Duke University-commissioned “Piedmont Blues” which celebrates that rural southern acoustic blues tradition and explores the horrific legacy of slavery that it mirrored. The historically inspired opus featured a gospel choir and a nine-piece ensemble that was led by Clayton and showcased noted singer René Marie and tap dancer Maurice Chestnut.
In April, Clayton and his quintet debuted his “White Cities: A Musical Tribute to Charles White” at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, which commissioned Clayton to write it.
“I spent about two years researching and crafting ‘Piedmont Blues,’ and visiting historians and elders in North Carolina and South Carolina, so that I could learn about the greats and the architects of that musical style. It was definitely a deep dive,” said Clayton, who may include a selection from ‘Piedmont Blues’ at his Wednesday concert here.
“The piece reflects on the blues as a philosophy beyond the Piedmont style, which has a lot of ragtime elements, and examines the very human need to release our emotions — the joys and sorrows. And, in that process, the blues gives back to us.”
Corea has released five new albums in the past two years, not counting “Trilogy 2,” which is due out Friday. Clayton’s fourth album as a band leader is due out early next year and was recorded live at the fabled Village Vanguard club in New York. He is also composing the score for an upcoming film documentary.
“With my band,” Clayton said, “it’s a spirit that they bring to the music. With all these guys, there’s a feeling that — when you’re playing — it’s not for anything shallow, but for a chance to serve the music. We try to go deep and try to better ourselves, so that we can bring the energy in the room we’re performing in to a high place.
“It’s the spirit more than anything else, and the guys in the band challenge me. They might make me question my own thoughts, observe where my own comfort level is, and be willing to help me push my own boundaries further out.”
“What makes a band unique,” Corea concluded, “are the players. And there’s absolutely nothing like playing with Christian and Brian, because of who they are and what they draw out of me. The musicians are the unique thing and the musicians I play with are the food for my life. They inspire me to write for them and play for them.
“For me to make the music I love, I have to be friends with my musicians. With musicians I like, we can get on and communicate together, and that means it can be fun to make music together. If it ain’t fun, it’s not worth it!”
Athenaeum Jazz at TSRI presents The Gerald Clayton Quartet, featuring Logan Richardson, Joe Sanders & Kendrick Scott
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: The Auditorium at The Scripps Research Institute, 10620 John Jay Hopkins Drive, La Jolla
Tickets: $35 (members), $40 (non-members)
Phone: (858) 454-5872
La Jolla Music Society presents Chick Corea Trilogy, featuring Christian McBride & Brian Blade
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Balboa Theater, 868 Fourth Ave., Gaslamp Quarter
Phone: (858) 459-3724
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