Nicholas Payton may arguably be the finest pure trumpeter to emerge from New Orleans since—dare I say it—Wynton Marsalis. His range is awesome, his sound instantly identifiable and striking, and until recently his albums were impressive. His classic 1997 duet session with then 92-year-old Doc Cheatham was an incredible showcase for both players. On that date Payton repeatedly demonstrated it was possible for a 20-something player to engage vintage New Orleans music and excel instead of politely reciting and recycling the ideas of past icons. That disc seemed like the ideal tribute to Louis Armstrong, so it is both strange and troubling that Payton now chooses to do a repertory project which plows over much of the same ground he’d already covered so smartly with Cheatham.
Dear Louis falls into the same trap that has ensnarled numerous tribute works in both jazz and pop: There is such a reverential, polite air to the proceedings, with everyone taking such pains to play the melodies perfectly, that the music degenerates into a clinical exercise. Thankfully, the wily New Orleans pianist and vocalist Dr. John is aboard on two tunes, and he’s never been the solemn type. John’s warbling and comic touches on “Mack the Knife,” as well as his harmonizing and teasing air on “Blues in the Night,” rescue both numbers from pompousness, and he nudges Dianne Reeves into some tasty counterpoint on the latter. Payton does a passable Armstrong on “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You,” and generally plays thoughtfully on his solos. Bill Easley and Tim Warfield are versatile, gifted saxophonists, and Payton’s arrangements are well-intentioned, but there’s no getting around the fact “Potato Head Blues,” “West End Blues” and “Hello Dolly” were a bit long in the tooth last century.