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A Fireside Chat with Nicholas Payton

By Published: February 21, 2004

I think it is of great importance to me to make more of an effort to define my own voice, not only as a trumpeter and a composer, but just try to play jazz that is indicative of the times in which we live and that has more to do with embracing the elements of the music of my youth, as opposed to playing jazz through a concept of thirty, forty, fifty years ago.

The term "young lion" has followed Nicholas Payton for the duration of his budding career. Fueled by urban legends of Wynton's personal involvement, pressure for Payton must now seem par for the course. Judging by Sonic Trance, his new album for Warner Bros., Payton has survived and more importantly, matured from the industry's unforgiving process. This bodes well for the trumpeter, whose purity in tone and dynamic attack testify to his technical facility. Coupled with a sense of swing that warrants Wynton's praise, Payton's roar is worthy of evaluation. More than a handful of recordings later, "young lion" seems hardly fitting any longer. Perhaps now, Payton will be finally be distinguished, not by a phone call from a Marsalis, but rather his potential as an improviser (unedited and in his own words).

All About Jazz: Evaluate your Verve experience.

Nicholas Payton: Well, as far as where I was at that point in my career, I would like to think I am in a constant state of development so what is different about it, in terms of where I was then is I think I was still firmly trying to establish some things in terms of my foundation, address certain aspects of the jazz tradition. I had an all-acoustic band at the time, which was the quintet, which was my main band at the time. What I am doing now is basically an extension of that time. Without that, I couldn't be doing this. I just look at it as a very formative period in my development, as opposed to now, I think it is of great importance to me to make more of an effort to define my own voice, not only as a trumpeter and a composer, but just try to play jazz that is indicative of the times in which we live and that has more to do with embracing the elements of the music of my youth, as opposed to playing jazz through a concept of thirty, forty, fifty years ago.

AAJ: Were any of the sessions on Verve A&R bright ideas?

NP: No, not at all. It was never that. It was never an A&R thing. I don't think my records are traditionalist like I have heard many people say. To me, I have always tried to embrace tradition and still try to play music that is not only heartfelt, that is a sincere expression of where I am at that time, and trying to do something that is personal that reach the people. No, I was always given complete freedom and control in terms of what records I made and choice of tunes. I was given the freedom to play my own compositions and to pretty much do what I wanted to do. There was always suggestions, as there always is, I think, when your business is to work with people. I think that is just part of the business.

AAJ: Do you feel you found an identity on Verve?

NP: Music to me is music. It is just important for me to be at a place where I can exercise my freedom to do whatever it is I choose to do. If I choose to incorporate electric influences or not, if I choose to play things that are more accessible or whatever, it is always important for me to have that kind of freedom. I just try to create and do what I do.

AAJ: Both Payton's Place and Nick@Night featured your quintet, which you have since disbanded. Did you feel that you had exhausted that particular group?

NP: Exactly, I felt like we were together for five years and after a certain time, people grow and develop and they move on. I felt that we, as you said, exhausted all the possibilities of that combination. We had a great run. We stayed together five years, which is very unusual these days. I was glad to be able to work with brilliant musicians who were committed to try and create music and were committed to the band. It is a rare thing to find. I was very blessed to be able to have that kind of situation.

AAJ: Will Sonic Trance offend the purist old guard?

NP: I don't really think so, Fred. I don't think I am going to offend any real listeners. I don't think I am going to offend anyone who really loves and appreciated the music that I did of old because to me, this is the next logical step. For instance, on Nick@Night, I was already embracing grooves, different textures, in terms of different keyboard instruments, same thing on Dear Louis, in terms of orchestration and arrangement and colors. This is where I was headed anyway. So for me, I think for the most part, most people have really embraced what we've done. To me, it is still the same. It is just an extension. It is still improvisation. I am still playing with jazz musicians of high caliber. It is highly creative and it is very people oriented. Perhaps what I am doing now has a possibility of reaching a broader range of people because I think it embraces more of the music that is out there, as opposed to being "jazz." For me, it was relinquishing control that is allowing for complete and total freedom of expression by the group as a whole. I think unlike some of the records that I have done in the past, although there was foreshadowing of that on my last couple of records, early I was very concerned with writing form, heavy into orchestration, through composed pieces in terms of having bass lines, specific parts written, through composed from beginning to end. This band is completely opposite. Most of the pieces were cells or musical fragments that allow for the band as a whole to improvise and shape the form, and the color, and the tempo, and the harmony of the piece completely, with little or no instruction. For the most part, it was a work in letting go of what I worked hard to think about in terms of harmony and rhythm and just letting musicians guide the music themselves. I was very happy with it. We had five days in the studio, which is longer than I have ever taken in the studio to make a record. Just that alone, just not having to worry about cramming five, six tunes in a day was a relief, as well as creating more of a casual type of vibe in the studio. We would play a bit of music and go in the control booth and listen, get some stuff to eat, watch the game on TV, talk, and go play some more. It was a different type of thing. Being it was five days, it became like a home, as opposed to being in the studio and that environment lends itself to a different type of playing. It is the closest I have come to capturing my group sound live. It doesn't feel like a studio album.

AAJ: Give me a preview of Sonic Trance.

NP: Texturally, this album is all over the place. It has a lot of keyboard instruments being employed. The addition of the percussionist to my ensemble has added a whole other coloration to the ensemble. He is not just a percussionist in terms of playing bongos or congas or cowbells. He has a series of tuned bells and different horns and gongs that he uses and he is like another musician, as opposed to just a percussionist. He is very melodic. Also, I am using a lot of effects modules on the trumpet, which has allowed me a better range of sounds to deal with, influencing my ideas to hear differently because when I hear the sounds processed in different ways, it makes me think differently, conceptually. It is very groove oriented and very much embraces contemporary hip hop and R&B and rock rhythms, but it is still very much within the tradition as most of the people who I admire like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis. To me, they always made records that were always very poignant and timely, in that they really embraced the feelings of the time and the era in which they lived when they were making those records. That was my thought in doing that for today.

AAJ: Who is in the new band?

NP: I have Tim Warfield on sax, who is still with me from the quintet, along with Adonis Rose on drums. So a part of that sound still remains as a core unit of what I am doing now. New additions have been Vicente Archer on bass, Kevin Hays on piano, and Daniel Sadownick on percussion.

AAJ: Is there such a thing as a New Orleans sound?

NP: Yeah, I think so. I think there is a certain feeling that New Orleans has just by virtue of the cross-cultural nature of the city, being the only place in America, where you have that fusion of the African rhythms, one of the only places where African slaves were allowed to still practice their drums, that meshed with the Native American traditions and European classical harmony. That is why New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz and that is the only place it could have come from. I think New Orleans musicians embody that type of feeling.

AAJ: You guested on Greg Osby's new St. Louis Shoes session.

NP: Yeah, I really admire Greg. He is a masterful musician, composer, and player. I really respect his quest for not getting into any bags and any molds. Even when people think he is this guy who has this eclectic brand of music and composes these angular pieces, he goes and does a record of standards with a lot of cats that are established on the scene. He constantly is reinventing himself and that is something I have really a lot of admiration for. It was a pleasure working with him and it was one of the best recording sessions I have ever been a part of.

AAJ: And the future?

NP: I am taking it light right now. I don't have too many gigs. We have been working quite a bit so far with the new band and the response has been very favorable. I am pretty confident that people who have been Nicholas Payton fans will continue to be so because it is not so different from what I have done. Whatever will be, I can say that I am really into trying to play music that is indicative of the times in which I live and doing something fresh and different. I really spent a lot of time trying to address the fundamentals of this music. Now, I just think it is time for me to try and take more chances and stick my neck out a bit and see what happens.

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