A Couple of Pianists Change Key
There was a time not too long ago when Gerald Clayton and Aaron Diehl might have seemed like brilliant young jazz pianists cut from the same cloth. Each came to the fore with striking subtleties of touch and a foothold in the music’s bedrock traditions.
They were contemporary exponents of a legacy of African-American pianists stretching back to the music’s origins, and including masters of refinement like Duke Ellington, Art Tatum and Ahmad Jamal. They led small groups that seemed rigorously prepared, exploring a repertory that felt carefully considered. They were artists you could point to as a reassurance for anyone fretting over jazz’s stewardship in the near future.
All of which is still true, or true enough. But in other important respects Mr. Clayton, 28, and Mr. Diehl, 27, have lately been pulling in separate directions. The contrast can conveniently be made with a pair of very fine new albums: “The Bespoke Man’s Narrative,” Mr. Diehl’s studio debut, released two weeks ago on the Mack Avenue label; and “Life Forum,” Mr. Clayton’s latest, just out on Concord Jazz. And what that contrast reflects is a core uncertainty about the job description for elite young jazz pianists today.
To be clear, a lot of other musicians fit that characterization; “uncertainty,” in the right context, is another word for “opportunity.” You could limit the survey to pianists within the same late-20s age group who also have albums arriving this month, and you’d come up with Eldar Djangirov and Bobby Avey, each a force in his own right. What’s illuminating about the pairing of Mr. Clayton and Mr. Diehl is the precise way their paths have diverged.
Mr. Clayton has had a head start, and his is the more developed talent. Born into a prominent jazz family — his father is the bassist John Clayton, and his uncle the saxophonist Jeff Clayton — he received his formative training in Los Angeles. (He was born in the Netherlands, where his father had been working with the Amsterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, but he grew up in Southern California.)
Precocious upper-level jazz talent no longer develops in regional isolation, so Mr. Clayton was already known in some circles when he appeared in the 2006 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition, at 22. He had a breakout performance there, and almost a winning one. The consensus afterward was that Mr. Clayton had finished second (to Tigran Hamasyan) primarily because he took too few risks, rumbling happily along familiar terrain. It’s a lesson he seems to have taken to heart.
Mr. Diehl, who grew up in Columbus, Ohio, has likewise been tested in competition. In 2011 he won the Cole Porter Fellowship from the American Pianists Association. I was one of five judges, and discretion prevents further disclosure, but it’s safe to note that Mr. Diehl was an outlier among contenders who favored a more avowedly contemporary style. It’s possible that his take-away from the competitive experience was the opposite of Mr. Clayton’s.
Then again, Mr. Diehl had already toured with Wynton Marsalis and graduated from the Juilliard School. His aesthetic coordinates were well established: melodic precision, harmonic erudition and elegant restraint, after the example set by his most direct influence, John Lewis. (One project he took on while at Juilliard was helping Mr. Lewis’s widow, Mirjana, organize his manuscripts, recordings and other archival materials.)
“The Bespoke Man’s Narrative” is almost too perfect a manifestation of Mr. Diehl’s interests, starting with the title and its suggestion of custom tailoring. The album is a showcase for the group that Mr. Diehl has patterned after the Modern Jazz Quartet, Mr. Lewis’s long-running ensemble, which bolstered jazz’s acceptance in concert halls around the world.