In the swing era, leaders like Duke Ellington or Artie Shaw would draw small groups out of their large ones, letting the players cut loose without abandoning the benefits of orchestration. That tradition’s nearly extinct–but not quite. The leaders of the Clayton Brothers, bassist John and alto saxophonist Jeff, also lead a California big band with their drummer, Jeff Hamilton, and their little group sounds both emphatic and liberating. There’s built-in formal variety, to prevent disjointed strings of solos, but the charts don’t squeeze all the life out. The quintet recalls jazz’s premier brother act, the soulful, hard-bopping Adderleys: one of the Claytons’ tunes begins like Nat Adderley’s signature “Work Song” but then quickly veers off (call it a metaphor), and Jeff has something of Cannonball’s timing and enthusiasm, though his tone is darker. (It was well complemented on last year’s Siblingity by crackling trumpeter Terell Stafford, who was absent when I heard the band at the Showcase last November.) John Clayton aspires to 50s jazz bass ideals: a plump, quick-fade tone, tuneful lines, and a sense of discretion; he’s most effective laying down a soft bed for a soloist. Pianist Bill Cunliffe can pile up notes without falling behind, but knows when to fade back too. Hamilton has a big-band drummer’s well-defined beat–he could chop wood in his hi-hat–and adds a lot of cymbal shilly-shallying to let it breathe. The rhythm threesome really listen, picking up on one another’s phrases and rolling with punchy cross rhythms. Having made only five albums in more than 20 years, the Clayton Brothers know their book very well, and there are moments when the interplay feels a bit too familiar, but they make up for it by really sounding like a band. Thursday, November 15, 8 and 10 PM, Friday and Saturday, November 16 and 17, 9 and 11 PM, and Sunday, November 18, 4, 8, and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand; 312-670-2473. The Claytons will also play a free in-store on Saturday, November 17, at 1 PM at Jazz Record Mart, 444 N. Wabash; 312-222-1468.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven Banks.