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Pianist discovers the gentle power of Piedmont Blues

Gerald Clayton admitted to not knowing much about Piedmont blues until Duke University commissioned him to create a multimedia performance to celebrate the rich cultural landscape of the region. But once he heard Elizabeth Cotten’s recording of her early 20th century piece, “Freight Train,” the celebrated jazz pianist was hooked.

“It just brought tears to my eyes to hear how humbly Elizabeth Cotten delivered the song. There was nothing about it that said ‘listen to me’ and show off in that ego way of playing through an instrument. It was just really the way of delivering the song in its purest form. There was a sort of humility about it that captured the essence of the region and sound of the music,” Clayton said.

Clayton performs “Piedmont Blues: A Search for Salvation” in Cleveland April 15.

The Piedmont blues, which takes its name from the Virginia, Georgia and Carolina region where it came to prominence in the 1920s, usually doesn’t have the raw edge of Delta blues or electricity of the blues that came out of Chicago. Its sound is more lilting. Driven by a distinct finger-picking style on guitar that creates a loping bass line, the rhythm of Piedmont blues is similar to that of ragtime.

Clayton and his collaborator theater director Christopher McElroen made six trips to Durham, North Carolina, to research the history of Piedmont Blues. “

That was such a hip part of the process, just being a student and to go back to Durham. Through a great foundation called “Music Makers Relief Foundation” we were able to meet with some of the elders left over from the tradition, people who actually got to sit at the feet of Blind Boy Fuller and learn directly from those elders. We really communed with them. We sat, ate, told jokes. We got some really captivating footage, including a great shot of some of them walking through fields with slave barns in the background. We compiled all that imagery, which informs part of the performance as well.”

Clayton said that while the performance is certainly informed by the tradition of Piedmont Blues, it isn’t about trying to faithfully recreate that style of music.

“One of the challenges of doing any sort of a tribute performance, it’s easy to fall into the trap of doing your best impression, but I find that no matter how thorough, you’re always going to fall short. First, I wanted to compile a group of musicians who could really get to the essence of the blues expression. They needed to really be able to express that deep suffering and out of which the blues came. Also, to have cats who were hip enough to take a language and tradition and take the essence of it and move it forward and translate it into our own expression and move it forward. We definitely take a journey that most people would probably not label as Piedmont Blues, and yet it does feel connected.”

In the end, Clayton feels the blues offers both those who play it and hear it something special.

“I think that what’s so fascinating and captivating about the blues, is that it’s an art that at its essence is about releasing your emotions, and through that process it is a sort of therapeutic situation, where it actually gives back to you. You get uplifted by letting out your pain,” Clayton said.

Four-time Grammy nominee Gerald Clayton will perform his new work, Piedmont Blues: A Search for Salvation, at Cuyahoga Community College as part of the Tri-C Performing Arts Series. The performance takes place in the Main Campus Mainstage Theatre Saturday at 7:30 PM

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