Take note of guitarist

GARY SURES | Cradling his guitar, his eyes slightly closed, Greg Clayton strums soft jazz harmonies six nights a week in Koji's Kaizen Sushi Bar and Restaurant on St. Catherine, at Allegra Cigar Lounge on St. Laurent and at La Cigale Restaurant on St. Denis in downtown Montreal.

It's a busy schedule, especially when you factor in his appearances on other artists' CDs and his performances at jazz festivals. The Dorval resident is, perhaps, best known around these parts as a highly regarded jazz guitar instructor in the Faculty of Music.

Clayton has been critically hailed by Planet Jazz, an international jazz magazine and celebrated by local musicians as one of Montreal's finest jazz guitarists.

"He's a wonderful player! He's got a sense of jazz aesthetic that I really admire," says music professor Kevin Dean, one of the country's best-known trumpet players. Clayton was part of the band that accompanied Dean on the trumpeter's recent well-reviewed CD, Kevin's Heaven.

Clayton teaches guitar performance and jazz improvisation at McGill. He also coaches student jazz combos. When he was starting out himself, jazz musicians didn't have access to the kind of detailed training that programs like McGill's offer.

"The young people today are getting everything handed to them on a silver platter. In a matter of years, they manage to learn what it took traditional jazz players 15 years to amass. They're very lucky.

"My only complaint is that a lot of them sound alike, probably because of their similar style of learning. Hopefully, most of them will break out of it and learn what they want to do."

Clayton's students have a strong admiration for him. "He's got such a complete knowledge of the material, it's ridiculous. In private lessons, his command of the instrument is complete. He can demonstrate any technique instantaneously," says former student Randy Cole, who produced Clayton's first compact disc, released recently, entitled Live at Boomers.

Clayton plays modern straight-ahead jazz with an emphasis on standards -- North American popular songs written by composers like Gershwin. He first became interested in music as a young child. "The radio was always on. That's how I heard pop versions of jazz standards, people like Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Rosemary Clooney.

"When I was 12, a neighbour was selling a guitar and amplifier for 35 bucks. My mother took me over and we bought it."

Clayton learned to play jazz the traditional way, by ear.

"One day somebody gave me a Wes Montgomery album. Through listening to that, I learned the song forms. Shortly after, I found a Charlie Parker record which excited me. It had sophisticated harmonies and tunes.

"There were no courses in university, so I bought books in rudimentary theory and tried to figure it out myself. Nowadays, people transcribe music note for note. I didn't do that. I would listen closely and try to play in a similar way."

When asked what he tries to offer his listeners, Clayton replies, "You're expressing your vision of the universe, your version of what the piece is, but you're also trying to play foot-tapping music."

He believes his music has improved as he has learned to play more simply and clearly.

"Instead of thinking of the details, I try and think of the big picture," he says.

Saxophone and trumpet player Paul "Boogie" Gaudet, who has known Clayton for 15 years, agrees.

"He's not one to try to play a million notes. He's very creative. He's always inventing as he's improvising."

Clayton believes that one of the biggest problems facing jazz today is commercialization.

"Unfortunately, the marketing people are making it like a sporting event. People suffer from tendonitus now," says Clayton, a consequence of the pressures to aim for flashier, if not necessarily more musically sound, techniques in playing.

"[The marketing people] have also made a fetish of newness. You can't take last year's music anymore, you have to get the new stuff."

Clayton might need a little marketing himself. Calling him "one of a kind" and "indefatigable", music professor André White, a drummer and piano player, says: "It's too bad that he's not more recognized than he is. He's a very respected guitarist across Canada. It seems that he's mostly known by musicians. That should change with his latest CD."