The Album

Jim & Lenny studio pianoAfter scoring successes as co-leader of The Clayton/Scott Group, which won Group of the Year in 2005 and 2006 at the Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards, pianist-composer Jim Clayton decided to delve into more personal territory on his most recent project. Traveling from his base in Toronto to his beloved New Orleans, where he and his wife Tracey had spent some cherished vacation time and were also married, Clayton assembled his Crescent City dream band, including drummer Jason Marsalis, percussionist Bill Summers, trumpeter Marlon Jordan and bassist Peter Harris, for a quick studio session in May 2013.

Dedicated to and inspired by his daughter Eileen Agnes “Lenny” Clayton, who was not yet three at the time of the recording, Songs My Daughter Knows includes clever re-imaginings of familiar tunes from the PBS children’s show Sesame Street (composed by Joe Raposo) along with interpretive takes on jazz standards that captured his daughter’s ear during her first year. “It’s a musical scrapbook for Lenny, done in our favorite musical place,” says the native of Sarnia, Ontario.

Whether it’s the rollicking second line groove on “Grouch Anthem” (sung by Oscar the Grouch on the 1985 movie Follow That Bird), the bossa nova flavored “I Have a Little Plant” (originally sung by Sesame Street’s Ernie), the Professor Longhair inspired mambo boogie rendition of “Sing” (originally sung by Bob McGrath from Sesame Street in the show’s early stages) or their lightly swinging take on “The Rainbow Connection” (originally sung by Jim Henson as Kermit the Frog), Clayton and his stellar crew recast these pleasant ditties through a jazzy prism.

Jim&LennyOther numbers on the 10-tune collection resonate with deep meaning for the pianist, his wife Tracey and daughter Lenny. Count Basie’s vibrant “Flight of the Foo Birds” (from 1958’s The Atomic Mr. Basie) served as the soundtrack for a montage of home movie footage that Clayton put together of his daughter in various modes of play. The oft-covered Tin Pan Alley number “Tea for Two” (which dates back to 1925) served as a lullaby for his baby daughter while the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves” was a tune played in the recovery room after Lenny’s birth. The opening drum cadence from the main theme to Aaron Sorkin’s acclaimed TV series The West Wing was another musical tidbit that caught Lenny’s ear, as was the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s rendition of the Cannonball Adderley tune “Inside Straight.” Clayton’s lone original here, “Little Leo,” is named for Lenny’s astrological sign and written to the chord changes to George Gershwin’s “Summertime.”

Clayton’s love of New Orleans (and his daughter Lenny) shines through on this remarkable recording. “I’m not good at keeping a ‘baby book’,” he says. “I don’t have a scrapbook with a cutting of her hair or that sort of thing. But I did notice her reactions, which were always big for me. I made note of the date of the first time she laughed and we celebrate it like a birthday; October 27 is her ‘laugh-iversary’. And I always really noticed her reaction to music too. As soon as she was big enough to hold up her head and turn it, I noticed that when she heard the opening snare drum at the beginning of West Wing, her head would turn. And there was music that she seemed to like or would cheer her up, and I always kept track of it.”

While Clayton considered recording this music in Toronto and just burning copies for immediate family and friends and people who knew Lenny, his wife Tracey encouraged him to put it out for commercial release. “Initially I thought I was going to do it with my musician friends here in Toronto, but then at the same time I had always wanted to do an album down in New Orleans. And it was Marlon Jordan who gave me the idea to record there. I was chatting with him between sets at Sweet Lorraine’s just outside the French Quarter. He was playing there with Delfaeyo Marsalis’ big band, around 2008, and I was telling Marlon how awesome the New Orleans scene was and how energized I felt being there. As soon as I got off the plane I just wanted to hear music and be around it and play it if I could. And he said, ‘Why don’t you make an album down here?’ So he had me thinking. We were out touch for nearly five years, and then just a week before the session I ran into him again, and he wound up on the record.”

Clayton admits to being slightly intimidated at first during the session held at The Music Shed in the Garden District. “Here I was, a kid from Sarnia, Ontario. And just being in the same room with these amazing musicians…if I dwelled on it, it could get overwhelming. I mean, we listened to Bill in my college jazz history class. So I’d imagine that I was just playing for Lenny, at home in the living room, and I’d relax. Plus, musicians that good who’re also great people, they inspire to you rise to the occasion. The session wound up being a blast, and the recording turned out better than I’d ever imagined.”