Nicholas Payton: In Conversation
In some ways, Nicholas Payton's new Warner release, Sonic Trance, was inevitable: he says he was headed this way for quite some time. However, this record represents something of a highlight for the native of New Orleans ' a reach that grasps new uses of technology for aesthetic effect.
From the moment we first hear, 'Sonic trance, sonic trance'' echo through our headsets, we know we're in for something new made from something old. In Payton's case, sounds are produced in a group context using an entire age of special effects that we thought were dead and gone. They are unleashed and indulged as a child pillages a play store. The title of the record ends up being its own effect.
Nicholas Payton's sixth record is, he says, a new turn in a young career. Sonic Trance has the ambition of retaining tradition's achievements while using them to reach a newly distinguished fusion of jazz genre. It's a very lofty goal and the resulting 68 minutes of music will leave the listener grasping for aural reference points. It is slightly discomforting, but very fresh.
Nicholas Payton took some time out to speak with me from his home in Louisiana. We're in conversation.
Gregory J. Robb (AAJ-Vancouver): You stated that Sonic Trance really was about finding yourself and the child within and, in certain ways, that came across in some of the more humorous moments in the record. What did you find out about yourself as an artist with this album?
Nicholas Payton: Well I think in general, Greg, I guess this whole period of my life, I feel very reborn in many ways ' not only musically, but I guess just in my life as well: the new record deal, I recently got married. So many things in my life seem to be changing and happening all at once, and I think they all have affected one another in some way.
I'm finding new things and really focusing on all the instruments. And the chemistry between the group, I thought, was pretty astounding. I'm getting a lot of ideas for what I really want to do next because, for me, I think this is a big step in my development. I like to think of it as just the beginning of a new direction that I want to take.
AAJ-VCR: Was there any sort of element in the music that indicated that growth to you?
NP: That was totally my focus ' was to bring a contemporary edge to jazz music, and to incorporate elements of my youth in a way that I hadn't explored previously. And it's something that I think, with the next project, I want to be even more heavily involved in. Plus, just the level of freedom that I found ' how liberating it is to just get the right cats in the ensemble and sort of let whatever happens, happen. More or less, it works organically as opposed to having a predisposed idea to what is going to go down on tape. I just find it's more conducive to the creative element.
AAJ-VCR: Let's talk a little bit about the process of how these songs came out on the record. Because you had five days to record this, correct?
AAJ-VCR: Yet, the sound is very textured. There seems to be a lot in there. How much of this came out spontaneously?
NP: Oh pretty much all of it. I mean, there was little to no overdubbing on most of the live tracks ' only with a couple of instances which you can audibly hear when there is, obviously, more than one trumpet or saxophone. Those were overdubs. But most of the tracks and all the textural stuff was done live to tape. A lot of stuff wasn't even mixed subsequently. It was just straight to two-track. So it was just really feeding off the energy of each other. We had a couple of months to work with one another and sort of feel each other out and where we were going to go.
I've always been a big fan of coloration and textures and the different sonic possibilities that you can get out of manipulating certain types of instrumentations, and I'm just trying to build upon that same theme in a different way.
AAJ-VCR: With Sonic Trance, we're hearing some effects that go back ' wah-wah effects ' really to the 1970s. Yet you're re-employing them and kind of redefining them. What drew you so far into the synthetic?
NP: I'm really interested in incorporating the sound of what's available technologically speaking and mixing that with the organic use of improvisation that we've been exploring for the last couple of years.
In terms of just the recording aspect, I really wanted to exploit the fact that we were in the studio, and that there's a certain element that you can bring to recordings that can't really happen on a live performance. There are so many things that you do with panning things from left to right, and having things out of phase that sort of give the listener the effect of something dramatic, or even more so, cinematic. I just really wanted to exhaust all the possibilities of all this wonderful digital technology that we have at our disposal, but still retain the element of jazz.
AAJ-VCR: Do you see the blurring of the line between acoustic and synthetic sound as a kind of literacy for the future of jazz?
NP: I think so. I think so many doors can be opened with the use of some of the wonderful things that we have. My feeling is: why not explore that along with the acoustic thing? That's why on all the tracks (on Sonic Trance ), you hear us playing acoustic bass. For the most part, Tim Warfield, the saxophonist, is completely unaffected. On a lot of tracks, I just play the natural trumpet as well, because we want keep that element of rawness and I wanted this to be a total experience in sonic texture. I think'having all this electronic tapestry going on with the very primal sound of congas gives it a certain feel of something futuristic and something very primal. And I like playing, and toying with, that element.
AAJ-VCR: You touched on the idea of how this record came together in the studio. How do you see it coming about live?
NP: Well, the whole concept of Sonic Trance, for me, is to not get into any particular mode'that's why I misplaced a lot of the same tunes in different versions, in different incarnations: to show that our live act is to bring something different to the set every night. Sometimes we repeat the same tune in a set, just play it in a different, particular mood. I really don't want to get into recreating the record because I think part of what makes the record special is that the musicians were allowed to create freely whatever they felt the ride was at the time. And I want to stay as close to that as possible. I don't want to go for recreating what we did there.
AAJ-VCR:: I hear a lot of hip-hop in this record. How legitimate is hip-hop as a form? What future does it hold for you?
NP: I don't think a lot of people thought that it would be around as long as it has been. It's been here well over 20 years and it's continuing to hold strong. I think the problem is that'most of what we see and hear is not necessarily the best representation of what's going on in the creative side of the field. And I think, sometimes, some of the negative imagery that comes along with some of the popularity, some of the things that we see, has branded it as not being artful.
For one, I think it's the voice of the youth today. I think it has validity in terms of the youth being expressive in poetic form. Also in musical form, particularly with regards to what they're doing with rhythm.
I think it's completely fresh and innovative, and I'm trying to draw from that because I come from that culture. I come from an era where that's the sound that I grew up hearing and feeling. You know, we used to break dance on the linoleum mats and everything just like everyone else. I'm interested in really exploring that on a much deeper level than I have before. And hopefully, because of that and a lot of other artists who are incorporating'more of those elements into the music, it will give more of a voice to it ' and maybe open some people's eyes to it that otherwise have been shrugging it off as some kind of gangster music or some kind of violent thing.
I just think we have to be open-minded to different things in this culture, and I think there's a lot of important things being said in hip-hop, and I want to be a reflection of the positive.
AAJ-VCR:: You are at a very interesting age. You're turning 30 pretty soon. How do you think that you're going to continue the tradition of forging ahead in jazz in the future?
NP: I feel good about where I'm at right now. I think I'm old enough now, and experienced enough to have (by trial and error) figured a lot of things out about musically where I come from and what's the best way to go about trying to see my vision through. At the same time, I think I'm young enough to still have, as you say, many years ahead to try to explore this period that I'm at now'I'm just beginning to realize the fruits of all these things so I want to take the time to just kick into high gear and work double time. I don't feel like I want to rest on my laurels and say, 'I've accomplished XYZ.'
I feel even more inspired now because of where I'm at ' in between generations, to really try to make a concerted effort to make some kind of contribution, make a positive statement and be an encouragement to those who are under me.