Toronto-based pianist Jim Clayton considers New Orleans his home away from home. He spends considerable vacation time and got married here. He also decided to make his newest CD in the Crescent City, with four New Orleans-based jazz musicians. Clayton developed the project around songs familiar to or inspired by his young daughter, Lenny. It’s an unusual concept, but one that works well. It also underscores the primary ingredients in making jazz: it’s not about the source material so much as the improvisational art practiced by versatile musicians, and their ability to think as one on any given tune. Mixing in a variety of N’awlins rhythms created a bubbling musical gumbo.
Bassist Peter Harris, drummer Jason Marsalis and percussionist Bill Summers joined Clayton in the core band and it is evident that they and trumpeter Marlon Jordan absorbed his enthusiasm for the project. Jordan added his robust sound on two of the CD’s ten tunes: Cannonball and Nat Adderley’s “Inside Straight” and a very unusual take on the chestnut “Autumn Leaves.” Jordan was also the one who suggested that Clayton make the recording in New Orleans rather than back home in Canada.
The Public Broadcasting System TV program “Sesame Street” was the largest single source of material on the CD. It begins with an infectious second-line groove on “Grouch Anthem,” which opened the 1985 “Sesame Street” movie “Follow That Bird.” The other “Sesame Street”/Muppets-related material includes “I Have a Little Plant,” Joe Raposa’s tune “Sing” from the show’s earliest years on TV, and a swinging version of “The Rainbow Connection” that creator Jim Henson sang as the voice of Kermit the Frog.
Clayton selected tunes, including jazz standards, that most caught his daughter’s ear either at home or while riding in the car in her first year. They included Neal Hefti’s Basie Band standard “Flight of the Foo Birds,” the main theme from TV’s “West Wing” series and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s take on “Inside Straight.” Clayton penned one original here, naming the swinger “Little Leo” (set to the chord changes for “Summertime”) for his daughter’s astrological sign. The band’s clever take on “Tea for Two” begins as a gentle waltz before shifting to hard-driving 4/4 swing.
Clear highlights: “The West Wing – Main Title,” “I Have a Little Plant,” the inspired playing of the full band (featuring Jordan’s soaring horn) over the cakewalk groove selected for “Autumn Leaves,” the breezy “Little Leo” (dig the Harris bass solo) and “Sing,” which features a wonderful spotlight for Marsalis and Summers on a mambo-boogie groove inspired by Professor Longhair.
Clayton and his band created beautiful music here. He also shared with us the knowledge that his little girl has quite a strong and varied foundation in music appreciation. She may be little, but she’s already got mighty big ears.