No crystal ball is needed to determine that John Clayton has an extremely promising future as a major force in jazz. With his two partners, brother Jeff Clayton on saxes and drummer Jeff Hamilton, he took the 17-piece Clayton/Hamilton Orchestra through a collection of his own brilliantly crafted arrangements, receiving a thunderous ovation Thursday from a jam-packed house at the Loa.
While drawing on his roots, Clayton blends them with contemporary concepts of his own. Certain passages in "Raincheck" were drawn directly from the original Billy Strayhorn version, but with new passages and voicing that added the Clayton touch. There was even an evocation of Jimmie Lunceford when trumpeter Snooky Young sang and played "Tain't What You Do" out of that band's legendary book.
Clayton employs certain sounds that are rarely heard in jazz ensembles: an oboe (Jeff Clayton), a rhythm guitarist doubling as jazz soloist (Jim Hershman). Contrasts in styles abounded: Herman Riley and Ricky Woodard on tenor saxes, George Bohanon and Ira Nepus on trombones, Young and Oscar Brashear on trumpets, the latter building from a dainty theme (his own) to a wild climax in "Sashay." Impressively individual, too, is pianist Sydney Lehman, who made her debut with the band recently.
Most valuably, the solos, instead of going on endlessly with just rhythm backing, were succinct, often enveloped in Clayton's skillfully written sectional or tutti passages.
Clayton, a personable conductor, had Herb Mickman playing bass, but picked up his own bass for two bowed solos, and on the concluding "Captain Bill" indulged in an Alfonse-and-Gaston two-bass exchange, with both men plucking away cheerfully.
Though he is often heard in other, smaller settings, John Clayton owes it to the jazz community to try to keep this mighty orchestra together. It may not work often, but it works wonders.