It was an old friend – the great Heiner Stadler – who first opened my ears to the vocal ingenuity of Jay Clayton. I opened an enormous box Mr Stadler sent me from his home in Maryland. This was like discovering an archeological dig, in many ways like the first time I listened to Dean Benedetti’s monumental recordings of the soli of the legendary Charlie Parker. [So much hyperbole here but soon it came to find its way into common parlance – when considering Bird, or Monk – one of those magical recordings that I first knew as A Tribute to Monk and Bird* [Tomato Records, vinyl in 1978 and double CD in 1989] that popped right out of Heiner’s magical box… and then there were several recordings that featured the intrepid composer and vocalist, and rare human being, Jay Clayton.
Unbeknownst to Mr Stadler, I had come to know of Jay Clayton when I began to pursue my passion for the music of the first avant-garde of 1930. While immersed in my studies at Trinity College, I became besotted with writing poetry, soon discovering the poetry of Ezra Pound, thanks to my friend and mentor, Professor Adil Jussawalla. Every pursuit telescoped in a kind of enormous collision, the fallout of which resulted in shrapnel from language, spoken and sung – from Latin and French, German and English – notes that elevated melodies, consonants and vowels that gave wing to words and phrases… “The age demanded an image/Of its accelerated grimace …” Mr Pound exhorted in his poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.
It was then that I came upon recordings of Miss Clayton and her vocalastics that lifted musical notation off the page, pirouetting like spectral gymnopedie into the rarefied air ruffling the quietude of the room in a radical new language made up of mouthfuls of air in which whirled the consonants and vowels of her own Esperanto… Jump cut to several decades later and the opening of that magical box gave up its recordings as if – in the words of Pliny – they “choked me with gold”. Three of these that stand out even today – especially today – featured the voice of Jay Clayton. Two of those featured Miss Clayton singing works by John Cage – Four Walls [Tomato, 1979] and Three Constructions [Tomato, circa 1989?], featuring Miss Clayton on A Flower and Forever Sunsmell. The third was the truly magnificent vinyl All-Out [Anima Productions, 1980], the finale of which was the eponymously titled song.
Now, I grew up listening to chorales and cantatas behind the great pipe organ in the choir loft where my mother, a lustrous soprano, sang in Latin and English; and the arias sung by Maria Callas, Crista Ludwig, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Mirella Freni, and Elisabeth Söderström or indeed like Ella Fitzgerald , Sarah Vaughan, Abbey Lincoln and many others. As I wrestled, following the lead of Ezra Pound, the incomparable literary giant in whose shadow I continued to write in search of the image that ‘the age demanded…”, I began to see parallels between the breathtaking melisma that the singing of sacred cantatas demanded and in the heart stopping coloratura of the very best operatic singers. Listening to how Miss Clayton, seemed to create new accentuation around groups of consonants and break down those that lived in the echo-chambers of known vowels… Then I understood that what I was listening to was something wholly new, and Miss Clayton was singing it, making a new vocal language.
In the song A Flower, from Three Constructions, for instance, I heard the skin of petals rising and falling gently as Miss Clayton found in this almost invisible – almost supranatural event – the almost aching rhythmic heartbeat of the flower in question. In doing so she had magically evoked the percussion colouring of the kind of balletic movements that Mr Cage had intended for this series of compositions he had envisaged for Merce Cunningham in the 1930s. In Forever and Sunsmell [from 26, one of 50 Poems  by e.e. cummings Miss Clayton seems to inhabit a humming her voice into a windswept atmospheric whirl as she sings the poem’s lines: “wherelings whenlings/[daughters of ifbut offspring and hopefear/sons of unless and children of almost]…whose both/eyes/love/this now of the sky” How on earth could anyone not be seduced by the elliptical arcs of the vocalastics of this iconic voice.
The album Four Walls, which features Miss Clayton and pianist Richard Bunger was conceived as an hour-long dance play written for Mr Cage for Merce Cunningham and was based on Text for No. VII, a poem written by the latter. “Sweet love/my throat is gurgling…” she sings” This is one of those rare works which “…sets forth Cagean ideas about sound and silence, it also takes up the principles of repetition, gradual change, cyclical development and economy of means years before the minimalists appeared on the scene.” [from excellent booklet notes by Eric Salzman]. It is an enduring testament not only to Mr Stadler’s genius for casting on this rare disc Miss Clayton in the role of the spectral lover, but a reaffirmation of the absolute mastery of Miss Clayton’s vocalastic brilliance in ghosting her way – especially on the a capella vocal solo in Scene VII – through this dance play that, when premiered with Mr Cunningham, Patricia Birch [now a celebrated choreographer], Leora Dana and Julie Harris [both of whom are now famous actresses].
And then there is the album All Out, a quintessential work by Mr Stadler who called upon Miss Clayton to sing seven songs including Lonely Woman by Ornette Coleman, Random Mondays and 7/8 Thing written by Miss Clayton and, of course, All Out a composition by Mr Stadler, written expressly for Miss Clayton. Throughout the repertoire on this album Miss Clayton. This is prototypical Clayton-genius. She is luminous in a dark and forlorn way on Lonely Woman, radiant and stratospheric on Random Mondays, buoyant on 7/8 Thing and supremely seductive on All Out, where, with natural intelligence and sublime eloquence she caresses her way through words, syllables, and sounds from chest through throat…words and sounds finally given wings through Miss Clayton’s positively terpsichorean lips.
All of this was, of course, in addition to the constellations of stars whose work Miss Clayton also graced – Muhal Richard Abrams, Kirk Nurock, Paul McCandless, Steve Reich, Bennie Wallace, Dave Holland, Stanley Cowell, Rufus Reid and many others… not to mention many of her own solo works released on Sunnyside Records. Put together, this discography represents a staggering oeuvre that will take generations of adoring listeners time to dive into, to relive Miss Clayton’s celebrated life in music. But even that may only reveal a part of this rare gem of a human being… a gift from God to Planet Earth