Versatility: In music, the word often gets applied only to those players who spend years to hone their craft, then jump across genres with all the certitude of a traveler bearing an official passport. Jazz aficionados invoke Miles Davis reinventing jazz five times. Rockers look up to Neil Young as a boundary breaker who embraced country twang and synthesizers in the same career.
But by and large, most music fans and industry hotshots like their artists safe. Definable. Pigeon-holed. Never mind that the whole point of artistry is to avoid playing it safe; if your sound and style fit a format, you find an audience, gain a following and keep everyone along the food chain happy by giving them gobs of gobs of what they expect ... all filler, no flavor.
That's why a young artist such as Chicago's Rob Clearfield presents such a conundrum: He defies categorization while embracing a myriad of musical styles with authority and heart. And yet fans across the Midwest, and beyond, want more of what's clearly not the same.
On Sunday mornings, Clearfield plays gospel piano with the soul of a wizened church elder nestled in a South Side sanctuary. That same night, you might find him improvising on a $250,000 Fazioli piano, knitting the meditations of his heart into compositions that weave a gossamer thread between jazz and classical music. A few blocks away, he might haul his synthesizer to a club to dispense frenetic licks that complement some loud prog rocker's experimental madness. And since he's a rocker at heart, if you ask him at a recording session to give his best Jackson Browne impersonation, he can transform the keyboard into a pop-rock springboard of joy.
All of this sound pulses from a lad still in his 20s -- who has already graced the stage with with such renowned artists as John Wetton, Fareed Haque, Rakalam Bob Moses, Grazyna Auguscik, Juma Santos, Steve Gorn, Zach Brock, and Greg Ward. At last count in half a dozen bands, Clearfield also plays classical guitar in a Pan-South American outfit and effect-laden jazz-rock guitar when duty calls. He even writes for the stage (commissioned by Purdue North Central), the sanctuary (as music director at the emergent church Grace in Chicago), and most recently for film (The Lost Remake of Beau Geste - not yet released).
So it's no cliche, and every bit the truth, to say that Rob Clearfield doesn't so much play music as live it. At present, Clearfield ranks as one of the most versatile and captivating performers and composers in Chicago's music scene.