Pianist/composer Jim Clayton isn’t yet a household name to jazz fans, but that is changing. The Canadian co-led the award-winning Clayton/Scott Group and spent a decade as a music director with Emmy-winning theatre company The Second City. But his major break came from his 2014 CD, Songs My Daughter Knows, which benefited from inspired arrangements and great New Orleans collaborators (including drummer Jason Marsalis and percussionist Bill Summers). The album included the songs that marked his first year with his daughter Lenny (now age five), and ranged from reinvented Muppet tunes to the theme from The West Wing. It landed in the Top 30 at U.S. jazz radio (CMJ Magazine) and reviews of it were full of high praise: All About Jazz wrote, “Clayton and company do an outstanding job with these musical makeovers,” while DownBeat gave it 31⁄2 stars, calling it “warm” and “soulful.”
Clayton stayed home in Toronto to record his follow-up, and the results are already evident: Lenny Jumps In has charted in the jazz Top 30, and it’s to be featured on Jazziz Magazine’s spring sampler CD. The album features his old friend (and Clayton/Scott Group partner) guitarist Andrew Scott, bassist Steve Lucas, drummer David Peters, and percussionist Paul Ormandy. All know his daughter well, and Lenny continues to inspire him to create new songs and arrangements. Though there are some familiar songs, Clayton primarily focused on his own recent compositions. “I hadn’t composed regularly since my Clayton/Scott Group days, but the great response to the one original (Little Leo) on Songs My Daughter Knows got me writing again. As it turns out, it’s incredibly satisfying.”
Clayton penned eight of the eleven songs heard on this release. The Magical Land of O.Z. is a salute to New Orleans’ eclectic public radio station WWOZ-FM, and as a nod to their wide variety of styles, the track begins as a bossa nova, but switches to a cool shuffle just as the bossa fades. His lively Lenny Leaps In, like Lester Young’s Lester Leaps In, is a Rhythm-changes tune (in the bebop tradition of writing a new melody over the chord progression of Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm) and showcases Scott’s fluid electric guitar and Clayton’s swinging piano. The DeRozan Effect is named for Lenny’s favorite basketball player, DeMar DeRozan of the Toronto Raptors, and the train-beat brushwork of David Peters gives the tune its athletic drive.
Louisiana Cat Club has a funky New Orleans vibe, and was inspired by a French Quarter rug-weaving shop that houses a number of rescue cats. Clayton and his daughter are regular visitors during their visits to the Crescent City, and its friendly atmosphere is beautifully conveyed in this charming, laid-back 12/8 blues. “I asked the guys to try a groove like Donald Fagen’s Ruby Baby,” another recording with a personal story for Clayton: after transcribing the piano solo for a class assignment at Humber College, he bonded with the instructor over a mutual love of all things Fagen. That teacher’s recommendation led to Jim’s long-term gig with The Second City, where he met his future wife, jazz photographer Tracey Nolan.
The Clayton family’s friendship with Kelly Peterson and her daughter Céline led the pianist to pen the warm ballad Miss Kelly’s House, where they have been guests on numerous occasions. Although he never had a chance to meet Kelly’s famous husband, the late virtuoso Oscar Peterson, Clayton was invited by the family to contribute to At Home With Oscar, a video series in which the likes of Makoto Ozone and Monty Alexander perform on Peterson’s own Bösendorfer grand piano in his home studio. Clayton recorded stunning interpretations of Rainbow Connection and Peterson’s Love Ballade, both of which can be viewed online.
Riverwalk was inspired by the Spanish Plaza at the foot of Canal Street in New Orleans, which boasts the largest of the area’s many decorative water fountains. This upbeat tune suggests a beaming Lenny playing in the spray of the fountain on a sunny day. (Don’t Stop For) Coffee And Donuts, named for a running gag ‘warning’ by Lenny’s school music teacher, is another funky blues that settles into a hip groove.
Every musician faces the challenge of bringing new life to old chestnuts. Clayton’s mid-tempo setting of Cheek to Cheek swings effortlessly, while his rendition of the bittersweet ballad Tennessee Waltz has a country air with his subdued piano and Scott’s poignant guitar. Very few musicians have discovered the potential within Kenny Loggins’ Return to Pooh Corner (an updated version of his own House at Pooh Corner) but Clayton proves that a strong melody can be easily recast in a jazz setting with outstanding results.