Nicholas Payton, now 40, has been on the short list of major trumpet players for half his life. In 2011, he achieved an incremental 15 minutes of fame when he publicly renounced the word “jazz,” proclaimed it “an oppressive colonialist slave term” and embraced “Black American Music” (“BAM”) as his preferred alternative.
Even those who did not find Payton’s self-imposed semantic crisis particularly interesting or relevant or well argued will not be able to approach his new album outside the context of the “‘BAM’ controversy.” Yet what is most remarkable about this live trio recording is how conventional and even bland it is. Payton has spoken of “launching a movement,” but there is nothing very ambitious here, let alone revolutionary.
He often plays trumpet and Fender Rhodes simultaneously, one hand for each. On the opener, “The Backward Step,” the Rhodes is mere sweetening, a pleasant but static overlay. On “Catlett Out of the Bag,” a feature for drummer Lenny White and bassist Vicente Archer, the Rhodes grooves are so predictable they wouldn’t challenge a small-town bar band. Perhaps this is Payton’s point. His “BAM” concept attempts to erase distinctions between categories like R&B, soul, hip-hop and jazz.
On trumpet, he is often given to melodramatic, flamboyant fusillades of notes disembodied from the whole (“The African Tinge”), or spare, repetitive lines, presumably intended as suspenseful and haunting, but not. His solos consist of ideas that sound like gestures for effect rather than manifestations of inner necessity. The ideas usually sound familiar, and their technical execution is sometimes more casual than precise.
It is possible that no respected improvising musician has ever ended an album with 16 minutes as inconsequential, as full of stock licks and devices in the public domain, as “Frankie and Johnny.” Dumbed-down jazz by any name does not a revolution make.