Nicholas Payton: Playing Strong and Playing Blue
"It's something I've been doing a lot more recently. I had done it on a recording a few years back for the Armstrong project. I really didn't do it much after that. But the last couple years, I've been interested in doing it again. For one, there is a big tradition of trumpet players from my home town, New Orleans, singing. Everybody does it, with the exception of the more recent guys in the tradition; maybe from Terence [Blanchard] and Wynton [Marsalis] onward. But a lot of the older cats, all these guys sang as well as played, going back to Louis Armstrong. Clark Terry always would encourage me to do so.
"It can be a very enhancing thing to your overall musicianship, but it can be a very frightening thing to do so. You're so exposed when you sing. It's your voice. Through the trumpet is one thing, but your actual voice. When you're singing it's so telling, so naked, to be able to do that, as an instrumentalist to try to bring that part to it. A lot of musicians are actually doing it. As a trumpeter, I think it has many benefits. Essentially, what we're trying to achieve when we play has a very lyrical quality. We're trying to make the trumpet sing, many of us. So to actually sing, and then to go put the horn to your face, it sort of re-enforces that type of feel, which you are trying to achieve on an instrument that can be a very unforgiving and difficult instrument to play. We're trying to make it as easy as possible. So when you put the trumpet up after you sing, it makes it easier to play, physically.
"The trumpeters that have the most longevity, in terms of a playing career, are usually the ones who sing. Look at guys like Doc Cheatham, Clark Terry, Sweets Edison. The cats that played the longest are usually the ones that sing as well as play. There's something to it."
The band, particularly Kevin Hays on acoustic and electric piano, and drummer Marcus Gilmore (grandson of Roy Haynes), plays up to Payton's demands. It's his working band, for the most part; except that Hays has moved on to spur on his own career.
Payton met the young Gilmore on the drummer's eighteenth birthday. He happened to be playing with his legendary grandfather at the Blue Note in New York City. Marcus was invited to sit in. "I was really blown away, it was so great. He had so much together then. We've been working together for the last two years-plus. I've watched him grow considerably from that point. He's continuing to do so. I expect we'll see a lot of great things coming from this young gentleman. He has an originality all his own but is very rooted and steeped in the tradition."
Another notable aspect to the project was working with noted producer Bob Belden. Payton normally produces his own albums, but happily gave Belden co-producing duties.
" Bob and I have had a friendship long before we got to work together. It was because of the rapport we have musically that I decided he would be a great choice as a producer ... Bob is very rare. He's a connoisseur of films, fashion, clothes, all sorts of things; things that are just as important, if not more important, than musicianship alone. I thought he was a perfect foil for me. We view things very similarly, but different enough so that he is a great objective counterpart."
Composing is an important aspect of Payton's musicianship. He's still a sought-after sideman for many projects, but brings his own composing stamp to his own recording and performance. His writing frequency varies. Sometimes, with deadlines approaching, he will have to set aside specific time to write. "But even then I can't force that. Usually with those situations it can be planned a year in advance. Inspiration just doesn't come to me ... I can't summon it. It has to be present on its own accord. I have to be open to it whenever it's there. I have periods where I feel very prolific and other periods when nothing will come out. It's the same with improvising. I try to get my playing so that I only play the ideas that are really meaningful and don't play the things that I don't mean or that don't resonate with me.
" I don't try to theorize the improvisational aspect of my playing, no more so or less than my composition. At this point, I don't really want to do anything particularly special. I find there's more of a chance of it having meaning if these things flow out of the natural context of who you are and what feels right."
Payton, 35, seems to always have had a sense of what is right.