Clarinet, harmonica and saxophonist, composer and bandleader and musical globetrotter Dexter Payne
is the type of musician who is most often categorized as "difficult to categorize." Profoundly influenced by physical and spiritual journeys through the cultures of America, the Middle East, Africa and Brazil, Payne's recorded output checks off every box from Mississippi delta blues to Brazilian choro to Hindu chant. "From a young age, I have been drawn to music that speaks real culture, beginning with the rich musical heritage of African slaves in North America and their descendants," he writes in his website biography.
At first spinning his wheels in formal education, Payne jumped in as a founding member of the Big Sky Mudflaps, one of Montana's foremost American and roots dance bands, and remained for their first two recordings. Both Armchair Cabaret
(1979, Helios) and Sensible Shoes
(1983, Flying Fish) demonstrate Payne's emotional and technical dexter-ity (no pun intended) with jump blues, swing music, and other roots Americana. He accompanied blues singer-songwriter Judy Roderick both professionally and personally for many years, until she succumbed to diabetes in 1992. Payne documented their relationship with the 2008 release of When I'm Gone
by Judy Roderick
& The Forbears (plus Dr. John on piano and Hammond B-3 for several tracks) on his own label (Dexofon Records).
After visiting Charlie Parker
's grave during a sabbatical to Kansas City, Missouri, Payne was gifted a fortune-telling session with an astrologer who suggested he would benefit from traveling alone in a foreign country. "That journey was a thoroughly life-changing experience. There I met Thiago de Mello
," says Payne. "1995 through 1998 were very rich years, in life and in music, for me."
Payne's quietly brilliant collaborations with Brazilian composer and percussionist Thiago de Mello, reflected through numerous titles released from 2004 through 2012, are one of the cornerstones, and some of the most beautiful music, of Payne's career to date. In his notes to Inspiration
(2004, Dexofon), Brazilian jazz entrepreneur Arnaldo DeSouteiro
called Payne ..."a clarinetist with beautiful sonority, fascinating fluency andfor the general astonishment of those who still think that 'Americans cannot swing playing Brazilian rhythms' he proves otherwise with his own mischievous phrasing. To define him as a mixture of Artie Shaw
and Severino Araújo would be no exaggeration whatsoever."
In his notes to their 2007 duet release Disk Tum Derrei (Chorando e Sambando)
, de Mello wrote: "Chorando e Sambando
is the subtitle of this album. It represents two of the most common rhythms in Brazilian popular music. I dedicated it to Dexter. He plays as if he were a native from Brazil. Heart and soul!"
But Payne's wandering continued beyond lush and luxurious Brazil. He toured with Senegal's Boubacar Díebáte in various configurations (including one with Bela Fleck
) and contributes dancing flute to "Saya" on Kambeng
(2002, (Bantuba World Dance & Music) by Boubacar Díebáte & Dialy Kounda. His saxophone tears through folkloric melodies collected from Bulgaria, Macedonia, Turkey, Greece, and India by Meg York and Veelah for Village Squared
(2006, Self-Produced) like it's careening from bar station to bar station at the world's wildest multiethnic wedding reception.
In 2008, Payne was appointed Director of the Afropop Ensemble at Naropa University in Boulder (Colorado), where he served for four years. The end of his Naropa tenure overlapped with him reconnecting with longtime friend The Lionel Young
, who invited Payne to join his band as they prepared for an international blues competition. "We decided that the best way to prepare for the competition was to make an album. So we recorded a CD as we were preparing and we...we just knocked everybody out of the water here locally, then regionally, and then we went to Memphis and won the national competition," Payne recalls. On Our Way to Memphis
[2011, Dexofon] rips and roars through solid gold soul, from the raw blues guitar urgency of "Drivin' Wheel" (Roosevelt "Honeydripper" Sykes), and extended blues and R&B jams through Jimmy Forrest's "Night Train" and Muddy Waters' famous "Got My Mojo Workin.'"
"Difficult to categorize" Dexter Payne, through all these regional/musical adventures, has generally remained untracked by and under the music business' radar. "I'm not a superstar, in talent or personality, and don't want to be," he suggested while agreeing to this interview. "But I do have something worth sharing and it's increasingly apparent that there is only so much time..."
In 2014, Payne released Pra Vocé
, his homage to Thiago de Mello (who passed in 2013), by the Dexter Payne Quartet +1: himself on clarinet with percussionist Raoul Rossiter
, accordion player Dave Willey
, pianist Victor Mestas Perez
, and guitarist Bill Kopper
. Its uniquely beautiful blend of Brazilian, jazz (especially New Orleans), African and other instrumental musical styles features a live update of "No Wolf at the Door" from Payne's 2007 duet album with de Mello (Another Feeling
[Dexofon]). Jazz For All (Jazz Forró)
(Dexofon) by the Dexter Payne Quintet followed in 2018. This set revisits "Coração Latino," an Arabic-sounding serpentine thrillride that Payne first recoded in 1997 (and released on 2004's Inspiration
). "Most of these great Brazilian compositions came to my attention in 2014, a seminal year for me in music and much more, fomenting changes that are still unfolding," Payne wrote in his liner notes.
Payne is also contemplating releasing a solo album culled from years of practice and recording in "The Tank," an abandoned empty steel cylinder that sits on a hill in an oil town hours from his home. "You play a note in there (or even scuff your foot) and the sound lasts for nearly sixty seconds," he explains. "A day in there changes the way you hear and play music forever, and I've gone there on and off for years. It's like Paul Horn
in the Taj Mahal on acid!"
"I just want to play a songfor the hungry, the homeless, the imprisoned and oppressed, the sick and the dying, the war torn and displaced, for the natural world, for the dead," Payne's website bio concludes. "A song for life, all things and all beings, living in these most interesting times." All About Jazz:
What are the earliest memories of music you can recall? Dexter Payne:
I remember a harmonica around the age of five, but I have seen a photo of me toting one around at about three. My mother's mother singing "Red River Valley," probably before I was three. Our landlord and upstairs neighbors' daughter would babysit us and play her 45s. I was always drawn to older people, and she had the Flying Saucer DJ 45 with five second clips of all the hits from 1955 and '56 like Little Richard, Elvis, The Platters.
We moved to Colorado before my fifth birthday, and when we all got carsick riding in the mountains, Dad made us sing in the car, every song we knew. I got bored with singing and discovered I could play most of the melodies on my treasured harmonica, which was a gift from my grandmother.
Then he got a plastic ukulele with a cheater-box, like an autoharp strapped on the neck and it had a few push-buttons for chords. I looked underneath and figured out how to make the chords with my fingersprobably after watching his brother play and sing, because Uncle Gene always made music fun!
I knew I wanted to play clarinet from about five, maybe because Dad had played as a kid. And I knew there was one waiting in a closet. When I started in third grade band, I discovered it was not a very good clarinet! As a pre-teen, I discovered that staying home from school had benefitslistening to KDKO and a jazz station. I remember Miles and Basie. But I also got swept up by The Beatles.