Last fall, when Seattle's Earshot Jazz Festival invited pianist/vocalist Dawn Clement to serve as artist-in-residence, she knew immediately what she wanted to do.
"How about some duos?" she asked.
The result was a dazzling series of duets with vocalist (and fellow Cornish College of the Arts instructor) Johnaye Kendrick; saxophonist Mark Taylor, with whom Clement co-leads the expandable duo Lineup!; veteran trombonist Julian Priester; and pianist/vibist Marina Albero. As a follow-up, the Seattle label Origin has released Clement's fifth album as a leader: a wonderful, all-duo album titled Tandem.
As we chat, Clement is seated in front of two grand pianos in her Cornish studio, which affords a spectacular view of Seattle and the snow-capped mountains of the Cascade Range. Clement has spent 18 years in this nook, forging relationships with a generation of students, local colleagues (such as Priester and Taylor) and world-famous visitors, including saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and drummer Matt Wilson.
"I always remind everyone in Seattle how important she is in that town—a figurehead of sorts," says Wilson. "We need Dawn Clement in Seattle, like we need [trumpeter] Ron Miles in Denver—people who lead."
Wilson, who teaches summers at Cornish and at the nearby Jazz Port Townsend festival/workshop, played on Clement's crisp 2008 trio album, Break (Origin), and recently recruited her for the West Coast tour of his Carl Sandburg tribute, Honey & Salt, which appeared at the Monterey Jazz Festival and at Earshot.
Born in La Mesa, California, Clement grew up in Vancouver, Washington, singing in church with her siblings—an influence one can hear in the quiet, hymnal quality of some of her original songs—and playing in the Fort Vancouver High School jazz band. The first jazz tune she ever learned was "Well, You Needn't" by Thelonious Monk.
"I learned it the wrong way, from The Real Book," she says, laughing as she moves to the piano to demonstrate some incorrect notes she learned from the early, illegitimate version of the book.
Soon, however, she was hearing the right notes at jam sessions across the Columbia River, in Portland, where drummer Ron Steen took her under his wing. After high school, a full, four-year ride at Cornish kept her in the Northwest and she was hired there upon graduation, in 2000. Two years later, the release of a quartet album with Priester, Deep End Dance (Conduit), cemented her reputation.
Though deeply imbedded in Seattle, where she has earned Earshot's Golden Era award three times, Clement has been around the block. In 1998, along with a young Anat Cohen, she was mentored by Jensen in the first edition of Sisters in Jazz, a program offered by the (now defunct) International Association for Jazz Education.
Other high points along the way have included appearances at Manhattan's Cornelia Street Café and Kitano; Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center, where she competed in the Mary Lou Williams Piano Competition; and three albums on Outline by Bloom. In 2015, Clement earned a master's degree in music composition from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Though she has a passion for "harsh, dissonant, aggressive" music, Clement has also never turned her back on the simple beauty of a melody.
"Singing was the first form of expression for me," she says. "It's how I first related to jazz."
Her fierce commitment to an approach she calls "genre-inclusive" comes through vividly on Tandem. The album includes jazz-oriented outings such as a clackety collaboration with Wilson on Monk's "Bemsha Swing"; a vigorous, stop'n'start blues with Priester, "Rules For Wayne," which she wrote as a birthday present for Seattle mainstay Wayne Horvitz; romps with Taylor on Lennie Tristano's "Ablution" and "Sugar Cliff," by Cornish alum Brad Shepik; a scat solo over Seattle bassist Michael Glynn's fetching lines on the standard "My Ideal"; and a free outing with Priester, "Improv."
But her ethereal, singer-songwriter side also shows through on vocal-piano cuts like "In The Wee Small Hours" (a sometime lullaby for her three kids); "Memory," her haunting lyric about the passage of time; a gorgeously blended vocal duet with Kendrick on the ballad "I Think Of You"; and a dreamy duet with Wilson on "Stay Awake," from the film Mary Poppins.
"She has all the craft skills: She swings, she can read, she has time," says Wilson, who met Clement in Bloom's band. "And I love the way she sings. She's really complete. She has the true spirit of the music."
Clement is poised to share more of that spirit. The Tandem sessions yielded enough for a follow-up album and she and Wilson have already tracked a 10-year anniversary version of Break (due later this year), which includes a scintillating interpretation of Keith Jarrett's "Partners." Down the line, Clement plans to do an album for strings and piano.
"I'd love to go on the road and just play and sing," she says. "Singer-songwriter, free, avant-garde—it's all one person."