By: Brian Bavosa
For decades, jazz musicians have been viewed as "cool," "hip" or demonstrating an articulate, intellectual swagger that can be viewed as both polite as well as borderline taboo. New Orleans' own son, Nicholas Payton, can certainly be characterized by all of these adjectives, but also a few others all his own, especially on his Nonesuch Records debut, Into The Blue (released last April). Almost always dressed in sharp, exquisite suits, looking polite and playing in a style reminiscent of earlier jazz legends, ultimately Payton has a style and mood all his own.
Within moments of speaking with Payton via telephone, I can tell he is cooler than a glass of iced tea on a back porch at sunset. He speaks softly and slowly - polite, even - in his deep baritone voice, seemingly in no rush, much like his latest effort.
"For me the concept of the record was to not really adopt a concept at all," says Payton. "I just wanted to try to create beautiful music that was sophisticated with a hint of elegance and grace; music that is very easy to listen to that still is fresh with a modern edge. I think all too often times music - especially with jazz - music that is 'on the edge' is often perceived as being not palatable. I wanted to try and make a statement that had poignancy in the times but was also a very pleasurable listening experience."
Growing up in New Orleans had a great effect on Payton. Hailing from a musical family where he began playing trumpet at age four, he has since released eight albums and has over 100 recordings to his credit. For Into The Blue, he enlisted some big names, most notably Kevin Hays on piano and Fender Rhodes (John Scofield, Sonny Rollins) and bassist Vicente Archer (Kenny Garrett, Eric Reed). Payton clearly has the greatest admiration for the musicians he asked to play on this record.
"I know these musicians will play the types of things that make it work, and that is really about selecting musicians with like minds," he says. "Music like this can't work if cats don't have a like-mindedness, because it's really about being collected, in how we bounce these ideas back and forth off of each other. It's like sports. Obviously, it takes individual strength and ability and agility, but without other people there's nothing."
Often compared to Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis because of his technique and approach, Payton is a true student of jazz, studying under and being directly influenced by Wynton Marsalis. Into The Blue is clearly colored by his predecessors and includes a tasteful hint of Latin funk. The album also paints noticeable brushstrokes of Davis and John Coltrane. For the latter, listen to the jumping off point of "The Charleston Hop (The Blue Steps)," and Davis surfaces in the ballads, which echo the legendary Kind of Blue.
"I played what I felt," says Payton. "I am always aware of him [Miles Davis], just as I am with others [artists] I grew up with like Stevie Wonder." However, don't let this fool you, Payton's effort is no imitation. There are similarities in the mood of the record and the way he plays the trumpet, making your heart and soul swoon and swell, but nothing more than that. Just as some of the tracks invoke Davis and Trane, many others, such as "Fleur De Lis," are up-beat, funky, Latin numbers that sound more like Mardi Gras than a gloomy rain cloud over Tin Pan Alley.
However, Payton is quick to acknowledge that he is not just a jazz musician. He impresses with how open-minded he is, and it's fun to consider how easily he could be a part of any modern day band in the jam scene.
"I've always done all sorts of stuff," says Payton. "I've always considered myself a musician first. Growing up in New Orleans, I played in all sorts of bands - from brass bands to hip-hop bands, I played rock, fusion. I played all sorts of music; I never made the distinction. Jazz itself is a very eclectic music, but what is it? Is it a sound? Is it instrumentation? Is it a certain type of rhythm? It can be very abstract as to what it is or what it isn't. I am of the feeling that the groove or sonic context does not define what the music is, but it is the spirit and the intent of which it is played."
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If you are open to the moment and you're playing from the standpoint of the music flowing through you and going with what feels natural, then you don't have any idea. You are in the zone of 'I don't know.' That is the desired space to be in, if you are truly improvising, [where] the music is taking control of you and you're just a vessel for that creative energy to flow through.
Probably Payton's most notable appearance for many JamBase readers is on Trey Anastasio's self-titled 2002 solo debut. When our conversation shifts to Trey and music philosophies, it is downright scary how alike they think. Just as Trey has talked about being a conduit or vessel for music to simply pass through you - in other words, allowing the music to play you - Payton comes from the same school of thought.
"Well, if you are improvising, that is exactly what you're doing," Payton agrees. "If you are open to the moment and you're playing from the standpoint of the music flowing through you and going with what feels natural, then you don't have any idea. You are in the zone of 'I don't know.' That is the desired space to be in, if you are truly improvising, [where] the music is taking control of you and you're just a vessel for that creative energy to flow through."
Payton also says he never has a setlist for his live gigs.
"I kind of try to do what feels right," he says. "What does the audience feel like? There are some nights where hardly any of the tracks on the album get played, or vice versa. I don't go into any given gig with what I'm going to play, or how I'm going to do it." This idea is backed up a few weeks after this conversation during his five-night run at NYC's The Jazz Standard, where Payton offered up highly varying shows.
Payton's very aware of his roots and the fact that many jazz records were recorded in just a few hours. So, when he says that he was at a distinct advantage when recording Into The Blue because he felt like had all the time in the world, it comes as a great laugh when all that time was in fact just "five days." Hey, Axl Rose could learn a studio lesson or two from Payton!
He mentions that most of the material he wanted to put on the album beforehand never even made it into the studio.
"I started writing two weeks before this session, and most of that music didn't even get used. The mood of the record seemed to suggest itself," says Payton. "I let it unfold the way it wanted to, as opposed to thinking, 'It's supposed to be this record.'"
For that reason, he explains, the record seemed to make itself. Several tracks on the album reflect this idea, most notably the longest track, "Triptych," the vocals on "Blue" and the end of the album, where "The Charleston Hop (The Blue Steps)" seems to wander off into eternity. Also of note is the fact that many tracks seem to be written with the drums in mind, often with Payton playing right along, as on the loose and funky "Nida."
There is a unique humbleness about Payton that puts one at ease. With his parting words, I realize what it is: he is honest, and Into The Blue is a true reflection of his background of all styles, themes and walks of life from New Orleans to jam band.
"I think the record fits very solidly into where I'm at now. In fact, that was really the point of just trying to create honest music that told as clear of a picture as possible of all of the many different things that I love in music," says Payton. "I think I'm increasingly getting closer and closer towards the many varied styles in music with a singular approach."
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