Trumpeter Shareef Clayton has performed with Macy Gray, Melody Gardot, and Bobby Sanabria; he also played on Sanabria’s 2012 album Multiverse, which was nominated for a Grammy. Originally from Miami, he’s now based in New York, and has recently released his debut album, North & South. (Get it from Amazon.)
Clayton is a showman. Like Christian Scott, he’s a hot, expressive player with a rich, full tone and a willingness to blend funk, R&B and jazz in varying proportions, depending on the needs of the individual piece. But where Scott has recently embraced ultra-modern production and synthesizers, Clayton’s music is more organic and live-sounding, and he’s always trying to please the crowd, whether real or, in the case of studio recordings, imagined.
North & South opens with its title track, a fast, vibrant blast that opens with a drum roll and a speedy, swinging electric bass line that’s quickly bolstered by a disco (yes, really) beat, atop which Clayton cuts loose with a high-pitched fanfare-like riff. The first real solo belongs to tenor saxophonist Lucas Pino, who’s unshakable as the band speeds up and slows down behind him. Clayton’s solo begins in the trumpet’s upper register and mostly stays there, though he dips down and slurs a few bluesy phrases along the way. After Pino returns for a second bite at the apple, the two men launch a short back-and-forth, which is ultimately shut down by a drum solo from Adam Jackson. It’s a great, high-energy way to start a record, one that owes as much to Earth, Wind & Fire as to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.
The next track, “Thinking of Morris (In Memory of Anthony Morris Clayton),” is a lush ballad with mournful violin, flute and nylon-string guitar from Jacob Lawson, Lisa Dispigno and Richard Padron, respectively. The melody surges in a way that recalls a movie score; it has a ’70s feel without any particularly retro touches in the production—though it’s unmistakably jazz, it’s also something a DJ could throw onto a “grown ‘n’ sexy” playlist between tracks by Sade and Anita Baker.
A Latin groove, harking back to Clayton’s time in Florida, gives “Beyond the Dreams” its pulse; Chris Pattishall‘s organ work is terrific, and Jackson’s drumming, with support from percussionist Bendji Allonce, is intricate and funky as hell. “Emotions” is built on a bass line from Alex Busby Smith that’s a half inch away from dub (Jameison Ledonio‘s guitar and Pattishall’s spacey synths push the piece even farther in that direction), and Clayton’s muted statements are strongly reminiscent of You’re Under Arrest-era Miles Davis. “Ground Shake” jumps from mood to mood with head-spinning rapidity, launching with an almost Afrobeat groove (bolstered by guest trombonist Robert Stringer) before another disco rhythm takes over, only to be dominated by a stinging, distorted hard rock guitar solo from Ledonio atop stuttering funk drumming, prog-fusion keyboards, and tight horn arrangements.
The album’s only weak cut is “I Got You on My Mind.” (It’s also the only one with vocals, by male singer Chandlar.) The lyrics are bland romantic clichés; it sounds like the love theme from a Spike Lee movie, and that’s not a compliment.
North & South concludes with a version of the standard “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise” that’s unlike any you’ve ever heard before. It’s set to another funk groove, with thick, rumbling electric bass and drums that snap, and the melody is taken as a unison statement by Clayton and two saxophonists, Pino and Troy Roberts. Clayton’s solo is full of smeared notes and rough, almost abstract phrases, climbing to the screaming high runs he’s so adept at. Roberts’ solo is a Wayne Shorter-esque murmur, well suited to the almost atomized backing of Pattishall, Smith and Jackson.
Shareef Clayton is an interesting player precisely because he seems so out of place on the current New York jazz scene. He’s a master of the horn, but he’s also an entertainer, able to play anything from swinging hard bop to funk, reggae, gospel, disco, or ballads, without privileging one above the others or giving the impression he’s doing any of it with a wink. This is vernacular music, played with extraordinary skill and powerful emotional honesty.
Stream North & South on Spotify: