Nicholas Payton: Electric Soul

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Nicholas Payton
By Jeff Strout
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Nicholas Payton
By Jeff Strout
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Nicholas Payton
By Jeff Strout

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Nicholas Payton’s home in Uptown New Orleans has that just-moved-in look. Boxes, yet unpacked, lay scattered around the entranceway of the converted shotgun double, now single-family residence. The airy living room remains sparsely furnished with the walls still void of ornamentation. It’s a clean slate, ready to be transformed from a rented house to a home for Payton and his wife, Cecilia.

Payton got married in June and moved to his new residence just blocks from the vast greenery of Audubon Park in early July. His seventh album as leader, the electrified and innovative Sonic Trance, marks his debut on Warner Bros. With a new wife, new home, new band, new label and new album of music aimed in a new direction, the trumpeter stands at the threshold of fresh beginnings.

“It’s hard to say what things spurred what,” says the 30-year-old trumpeter. “Everything seems to be happening at the same time. Without being too philosophical, it’s almost like going through a spiritual rebirth of sorts. A certain amount of the energy of my life is to try to get a balance—that means everything, not just performance, not just writing, not just the band, not just my personal life. I’m really trying to achieve a happiness in everything that I do.”

Sonic Trance finds Payton departing the acoustic, straightahead and classic jazz on which he’s built his considerable reputation since his 1995 release,

From This Moment (Verve). His venture takes him into the open territory of groove-oriented, atmospheric music complete with electric gadgetry. It has already caused a buzz among fans and aficionados.

Some people undoubtedly thought Payton an unlikely artist to plug in and head out. After all, his last album, 2001’s Dear Louis (Verve), celebrated the music of Louis Armstrong though, admittedly, with a thoroughly modern edge. He earned a Grammy for his 1994 performance of “Stardust” with 92-year-old fellow trumpeter Doc Cheatham on Doc Cheatham & Nicholas Payton, which also included such dusty chestnuts as “Jada.”

Then, too, Payton is from New Orleans, which despite its sizzling modern-jazz scene, continues to be associated with the tradition. The trumpeter, whose mother, Maria, is an opera singer and classical pianist and whose father, Walter, is a noted bassist and schoolteacher, began his professional career at the age of 12, blowing on the city’s streets with trumpeter James Andrews’ All-Star Brass Band. Even as he entered modern jazz, encouraged and mentored by Wynton Marsalis, he continued to head to Bourbon Street to keep his horn in the classic jazz style. As an astoundingly gifted, on-the-rise young player with a deep understanding of tradition, Payton was even considered something of a second coming of Armstrong himself, at least in his hometown. “When I hear cats like Nicholas, I think about incarnates,” said saxophonist/educator Harold Battiste in a 1991 interview. “He incorporates all that legacy of the trumpet players all the way back to Pops.”

“They’re very surprised to see what’s happening,” agrees Payton of those who’ve experienced one of a handful of performances of his plugged-in band since its debut in New Orleans a year ago. He then reconsiders, saying, “I mean a lot of people aren’t—people who listen to a lot of the records. Everything was sort of pointing to this. Maybe some people were a bit taken aback, those who have a preconceived idea of what jazz should be.

“The biggest thing for me, why I wanted to change and why I felt I wanted to break out of what I was doing is that, for me now, there is a certain sense of urgency to create jazz music that has relevancy in the times in which I live. For some time, the term traditional seemed to haunt me a bit. But in a way, I’ve come to embrace being a traditionalist, because to me the tradition has always been—from Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, Bill Evans—to take ideas from the popular idiom, the feel of the times, and filter that through not only their individual voices but also the times in which we live. That’s exactly what I’m trying to do right now.”

Those who encountered the Payton-led group Time Machine, which he formed in 1997 and which only performed in New Orleans, got an early taste of things to come. Looking back, the trumpeter considers the ensemble to have been a workshop of sorts that offered him the opportunity to experiment with electronic effects on his trumpet and explore freer styles. His short-lived, organ-driven predecessor to his present band, Soul Patrol, also furthered those aims.

“I was waiting until I felt comfortable enough to employ those things with a touring unit,” says Payton, who disbanded his acoustic quintet of six years in the spring 2002. “My last quintet record on Verve, Nick@Night, was really pointing at this—keyboards, groove-based pieces. I think more freedom was represented on our live sets than perhaps some of our recordings.”

Even during the period of the release of Nick@Night in 2000, Payton was formulating ideas and concepts for the future. “I am in the process of amalgamating all the different influences and the different places that I have been musically,” Payton said in a 2000 interview. “Right now I’m trying to make it all cohesive, to develop more of a singular voice.” As he admits today, he was also feeling confined by the structures inherent to the music of past releases.

“Coming out of such a heavily arranged thing, I just felt like I needed a change. The typical melody statement, solo, solo, solo, melody, out—that kind of format, after a while became a bit boring to me—quite predictable not only for us but the audience as well. Compositionally, with this new record it was my effort to try to write as little as possible.”

With its transitional pieces, Sonic Trance is, instead, about creating moods rather than playing tunes. Calling it, perhaps surprisingly, his most personal album to date, Payton seeks out musical forms beyond jazz, like hip-hop, funk, rhythm ’n’ blues and even dancehall and dub—all a part of his musical experience growing up in the 1980s and 1990s—and jettisons them into futuristic reams.

“I think it is perhaps more Nicholas Payton that anything else,” he says. “I was really reaching deep inside to sort of give people a view of everything I’ve been about since my earliest developments until now.”

In response to the inevitable comparisons between Sonic Trance and Miles Davis’ revolutionizing Bitches Brew, Payton is forthright, saying, “If there were no Bitches Brew there would be no Sonic Trance. I’m not trying to recreate that; I’m trying to extend the history. I’m not playing from the standpoint of what musicians did 30, 40, 50 years ago. History runs concurrently. What existed is very much a part of what we do now. But how that is interpreted and how that feels makes a difference. We don’t relate to Louis Armstrong the same way they related to [the music] in the 1920s. It’s still valid, but a lot of things have happened since.”

An interesting and appealing aspect of the tonal quality of the band—with long-time drummer Adonis Rose, saxophonist Tim Warfield (both members of the previous quintet), keyboardist Kevin Hays, bassist Vicente Archer and percussionist Daniel Sadownick with guest Karriem Riggins on synthesizer and sampler—is its employment of acoustic instruments alongside the electronic. Often, the first instrument wired up in what could loosely be deemed a fusion group, is the bass. Payton opts for the more human voice of Archer’s acoustic upright. Likewise, his partner in the frontline, saxophonist Tim Warfied, blows without effects.

“Everybody can’t be switchin’ buttons and knobs,” Payton says with a laugh. “It’s like a breath of fresh air amidst all the other crazy things that are going on. Between Kevin, with his boxes and his samples, myself and Karriem Riggins, who also did a lot of the atmospheric things and the drum beats, I didn’t want too much of that. That you still have the percussion, the congas, in the midst of all of this electronic stuff gives it a very primal, African [tone]. It roots it in everything that sort of exists right now to as far back as you want to reach and as far into the future.”

While Payton generously applies a wah-wah, pitch shifter, digital delays, echoes and a synth-modulator to his horn, he tries not to forsake his actual trumpet playing. “There are a lot of times I try to blend the trumpet sound with the electronic sound, so you can say, ‘OK, it’s still a trumpet.’”

Warfield explains the lack of electronic modifications on his horn: “Nicholas says I’m the straight man in the band. That’s exactly what my role is. That’s exactly what I’m supposed to do. It’s for a sense of balance. There should be that in everything in life and I think musically that was an intelligent choice. Sonically, I make a conscious effort to play more soprano in this particular group. Now when the timbres during improvisation dictate that I can pull out my tenor, I pull out my tenor, because I’m a tenor man.”

On yet another steamy New Orleans spring day, a too-rare stiff breeze blows through the oaks of Lafayette Square, a downtown park in the city’s Central Business District. Its revitalizing energy seemed to mimic and even intensify the adventurous music of Nicholas Payton’s band, which is performing a free concert.

Only those who had attended or heard news of the ensemble’s performances at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA) or the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival were aware that the hometown trumpeter wouldn’t be blowing his usual fine set of straightahead, swingin’ tunes. The bandmembers’ attire was the first clue that something different might take place. The men wearing jackets and ties at the park this day were not those on stage but rather businessmen in the audience fresh from their office buildings ready to relax at the early evening performance. The musicians were dressed casually rather than nattily outfitted as in the past, and to the amusement of many Payton stepped out with a flowered shirt that harkened back to the 1970s.

“For what I’m doing now, choking up with a tie doesn’t exactly feel right to me,” explains Payton, who admits that clothes and fashion are his vices. “The music is free and I think the style of dress has reflected that.”

“We were the cleanest band in jazz,” proclaims Adonis Rose. “We don’t dress the same, because the music isn’t the same.”

“There’s a certain presentation visually that goes along with the whole sound that creates what would be a complete feeling,” adds Warfield of Payton’s eye-catching retro wardrobe, which includes a number of mod, somewhat pimplike hats. The attire also speaks to Payton’s sense of humor, which pops up, often unexpectedly, in his music, in dialogue with the audience and in his stage presence. On Dear Louis, Payton sang for the first time on record, offering a totally outrageous version of the already humorous “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You.” On Sonic Trance, he again applies himself vocally on the skanking “Shabba Un-Ranked,” a play on Jamaican dancehall that was also inspired by trumpeter Clark Terry’s noted propensity to sing in “mumbles,” a combination of mutterings and actual words.

“Just the simple fact that he sang [“Rascal”] is funny in itself,” says Rose, who is aware that Payton is often perceived as a quiet, reserved man. “Sometimes he’ll run across the stage, he’ll dance, he might do anything, it’s so spontaneous. I remember the first time he ran across the stage when we were with the big band. He grabbed the mike and then did a little James Brown dance. A lot of people were surprised to see him do that.”

Payton’s funny bone is also revealed in his song titles like the “Shabba Un-Ranked.” Folks can’t help but grin when he introduces his “Cannabis Leaf Rag.” Because the tune, which is heard in two parts on Sonic Trance, opens by quoting “The Entertainer” and includes a snatch of “Fascinating Rhythm,” even skeptics at the concert warmed up to it. Amusingly incorporating ragtime, hip-hop, funk and traditional jazz beats and nuances, it’s a study in syncopation and rhythmic relationships. Sadownick supplies further glee by adorning the lively song with cowbells and whistles whisked from his pile of traditional percussion gear as well as less conventional items such as squeaky toys.

“A lot of times I come up with titles before the music—it gives me a vibe to work with,” explains Payton of naming “Cannabis Leaf Rag” as well as the hilariously dubbed and wonderfully conceived crowd-pleaser “Two Mariachis on the Wall.” The flamboyant quote of the melody of the old sing-along “One Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall” receives mariachi treatment with mirthful results. The carnival of a song constantly changes disposition moving from the exciting blare of the trumpet to a quiet melancholy close.

“My wife is Mexican, so I’ve been listening to a lot of mariachi music and, of course, the trumpet plays a big role in that music,” says Payton, who compares the style to American blues as a means of expression. “It’s sadness, but it’s humor. Struggle is not a bad thing if we embrace it as a part of what life is and what we can learn from it.”

While all of Payton’s writings for the group certainly don’t come with handles as easily grasped as “Cannabis” and “Two Mariachis,” he balances the material and program with an artfulness that transfixed audiences at both his New Orleans shows.

“This band is really, really entertaining,” Rose observes. “The cats are playing so much music; it’s like going to a circus or something. People love to watch this band because they never know what’s going to happen.”

“Once you get people in that zone,” Payton says, “I don’t want to break that; that’s why I called this Sonic Trance.” The trumpeter admits that the band has taken to stages, cranked up and never stopped playing during a 70-minute set. “It’s almost more of a cinematic approach to music. Originally, I actually wanted the album to be one long track, but that might have made some people upset,” Payton laughs.

No, doubt that idea wouldn’t have gone over too well when it was time to find the disc some radio airplay. Payton’s new record label might have been wary of such a format even though the trumpeter was given total artistic freedom for the recording date.

“Sight unseen, with nothing heard, they let me go into the studio for five days, which is longer than I’ve ever had,” exclaims Payton of Warner Bros. with a sense of disbelief lingering in his voice. “That’s like five years for a jazz musician. I’ve done whole records in one day. There wasn’t that kind of stress at all in the studio environment. We’d go in, cut a tune, go listen a bit, order something to eat, watch the game. It was like a hang. I think that environment made the music come off the way it did.

“A big inspiration for this record was Sgt. Pepper’s,” Payton continues. “I don’t think when [the Beatles] went into the studio they were trying to do a rock record—there’s so many elements: you hear ragtime, you hear rock, you hear blues, all sorts of things. They took everything in that was them. So it was about everybody—it was individualistic—but by being about everybody it was very open and democratic. With Sonic Trance, a lot of the music was conceived by the things that I was working on, but when we got in the studio it was about everybody.”

It hasn’t been unusual for Payton to spend nine or 10 months on the road while touring with his band or during his involvement in other projects. He recently finished a two-year stint with drummer Roy Haynes’ Birds of a Feather celebration of the music of Charlie Parker. This year, he also teamed with Greg Osby on the saxophonist’s new, wittily titled St. Louis Shoes.

In his quest for balance, however, Payton is taking a bit of a summer breather from that demanding pace. He’s using the time to regroup, practice his horn, a regimen he admits he’s ignored, and, as he offers, to deal with all the beautiful things life has brought to him.

“I think everything mirrors something else,” Payton philosophizes. “Your state of mind mirrors which energies you draw to you and how you deal with things you’re confronted with. And because I think I’m at a more peaceful state than I have been at other times, I’m feeling very positive about life.”

In September 2002, Payton began teaching as an artist-in-residence at his alma mater, NOCCA. It wasn’t so long ago that teachers like trumpeter Clyde Kerr Jr. at NOCCA and pianist Ellis Marsalis at the University of New Orleans shared their wisdom and experience with the obviously enormously talented student. He’s taken their cue in his own approach as a jazz educator.

“It wasn’t about do this do that,” Payton says of his musical education. “Jazz isn’t about that. You never know what somebody else is trying to do as a musician. You might stifle something creative and innovative that they have inside them. Jazz is about individual expression so I don’t like to force my philosophy or views on people. I just try to hopefully stimulate their minds so they can think for themselves. It’s the same thing as being a leader. I don’t like to tell my musicians play this here, play this there.”

It is a freedom that is much appreciated by Adonis Rose and TimWarfield, the two musicians whom Payton retained from his previous quintet and who have been with the trumpeter for 10 and six years, respectively. They are also keenly aware of its rarity.

“I remember Adonis came to NOCCA with two big-old marching-band drumsticks that looked like baseball bats,” Payton recalls, “and he couldn’t play jazz at all.” Today, the trumpeter sees Rose, who has participated in all of his bands, including both Time Machine and Soul Patrol, as having the deepest understanding of his music. “He has the New Orleans thing, and I need that from a drummer. It keeps that element in everything that I do. He understands that but he also understands modern music.”

“I think that people who follow us,” Rose says, “have to kind of be open to the fact that Nicholas likes to change a lot; he likes to keep moving forward. With this record, I feel like we’re really getting to what we’ve been trying to get to for the last seven years. It was a growing process along the way. It wasn’t that we jumped right into this.”

Warfield confesses that he was extremely relieved that Payton decided to keep him as part of the endeavor. “He truly allows me to do what I want to do. I think at this particular point, the sound of the group now actually caters so much more to how I approach my instrument improvisationaly. I am now able to truly express myself—at will and at any time—and that’s not something that happens often in this music these days.”

With Rose and Warfield onboard as time proven vets, the band gradually took shape with the arrival of Kevin Hays, who had occasionally subbed on piano in Payton’s quintet and whom the leader views as the point man for his present ensemble. Since Soul Patrol had been an organ-driven unit, Payton lacked a bassist and recruited Vicente Archer, whose guitaresque capabilities and “big fat beat” caught the trumpeter’s ear.

“By the time I added Danny [Sadownick] on percussion—it was the final element I was going for—the circle was complete,” Payton remembers. “On the first gig we did [with Danny], we were playing a piece and Tim was squealing this high note on sax. Danny pulled out an air horn and squealed the same exact pitch. I knew right then this was the cat for the gig.”

Payton drew inspiration for Sonic Trance from his life and musical experiences, such as blowing New Orleans classic jazz as a youngster, the time he spent as the teenaged musical director of drummer Elvin Jones’ Jazz Machine and various musical worlds outside of jazz.

In high school, the trumpeter was a fan of early hip-hop from the likes of Run-D.M.C. and Doug E. Fresh. His interest in the style was rekindled when Karriem Riggins introduced him to some of the more obscure, innovative rap artists on the scene. Payton calls the 2001 CD Angles Without Edges by Yesterday’s New Quintet—actually just the one-man band also known as Madlib, who just released Shades of Blue for Blue Note—as one of the inspirations for his current release. So, too, are the rhythmic concept and applications of the legendary James Brown.

“The tonality of how concurrent rhythms sound overlapping one another—how to have seven grooves working at the same time and how they all work in conjunction—that’s something that James Brown really understood,” Payton says. “I think what everybody can hear is a hot syncopated rhythm and that’s what I’m trying to get back into the music.”

He cites Kevin Hays’ album Go Round with Sadownick on percussion as inspiring him as well Roy Haynes’ refreshing and creative outlook, which he observed while working with the veteran. “He doesn’t like getting in any bags,” Payton says admiringly of the 77-year-old drummer. Payton looks to the late vocalist Betty Carter as a role model as a bandleader who knew how to evoke a mood and change gears. He says he’s also taken a lot from the 1980s era of New Orleans trumpet-and-saxophone duos Wynton and Branford Marsalis and Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison as well as the teaming of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis and John Coltrane or Wayne Shorter. And of course, Louis Armstrong will always loom large. Payton also proclaims hearing Davis’ Four & More as a defining moment of his life.

“I’m trying to embrace all things that I love,” Payton warmly declares.

The trumpeter also makes a point to emphasize the contributions his peers, the once-young lions, have made in the development of his musical concepts though he does so with a touch of recrimination.

“If I could have any criticism about my generation it’s that there’s been a lack of acknowledgement for recognizing our influences who are our peers. It’s very easy for us to say we were influenced by Miles or Trane or whatever, but no one says—I mean, I’m very influenced not only by Wynton and Terence but also by Roy Hargrove and Danilo Pérez, Joshua Redman, Chris McBride. I listened to their records and studied them, stole ideas from their records,” he continues, citing what he considers his cotemporaries’ timeless albums: Of Kindred Souls, The Journey, MoodSwing and Gettin’ to It, respectively. “We don’t talk about that, ever. When I read our interviews in the magazines, we rarely talk about each other’s music. And I think we are cutting each other off. Miles wasn’t ashamed to acknowledge, ‘Hey I come out of the tradition of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker’ and they weren’t that much older than him. We don’t do that, and I think it’s debilitating to this era of music.

“Now, all the young lions are getting old. We’re losing our hair—getting fat. But I think we’re reaching a golden era—the scene is wide open now for something to happen. I think a lot of the cats that were the young lions are starting to find their own voices.”

With the freewheeling, rhythmically chameleon-like grooves of Sonic Trance, Payton’s voice roars in that era. Its emergence will undoubtedly cause sparks whether positively or negatively charged.

“We’re not abandoning what we did before,” Payton assures, “we’re just trying to add to it. I want to build upon what I’ve already established as opposed to breaking things down. I really feel with this band it is an extension of what I think, rather than a departure. Every night you have to be not only attuned to yourself individually but to the unit as a whole, which is very meditative, I think, and in terms of my life, that’s what I’ve been trying to deal with.

“When I first started my band, I would talk shy, I didn’t like talking on the mike much. I didn’t really tell jokes. As I’ve grown older and become more comfortable in my own skin and experienced life. I’m coming out more. I’m more gregarious. I think this music is a reflection of that. It’s all one in the same to me. I don’t think I could be doing this music without certain changes in my personality that are necessary to produce music of this type of freedom. I feel free in life now and I’m embracing that.

“All the planets are kinda of working for me this year,” Payton says with a contented smile. “I just love living here right by the park and just going for a walk—taking time to be in the moment.”

Listening Pleasures

Miles Davis Decoy (Columbia)

Keith Jarrett Always Let Me Go (ECM)

Various Frank Zappa albums (Ryko)

The Beatles [The White Album], Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Rubber Soul (Capitol/Apple)

Gearbox

Conn Vintage One trumpet with Monette B-2 mouthpiece

Bach trumpet with a Bach 1 ¼ mouthpiece

Delay pedal, pitch shifter, wah-wah pedal, ring modulator, synth modulator

Originally published in October 2003

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