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Something Else! Interview: Jazz Trumpeter Nicholas Payton


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Trumpeter Nicholas Payton may have begun his journey as part of the traditionalists in the early-1990s Young Lions movement, but he couldn't have emerged any further afield. In fact, Payton's upcoming R&B-infused project Bitches is only just now seeing the light of day, in a completely remixed format, after being rejected last fall by the stalwart jazz label Concord.

[ONE TRACK MIND: New Orleans-born trumpeter Nicholas Payton offers insight into his varied career, from Satchmo to 'Sonic Trance'—and sings the praises of the Fender Rhodes.]

From its sometimes confrontational themes, to its serpentine rhythms—not to mention Payton's decision to include his own smoke-filled vocals—this album couldn't be any further away from his Grammy-winning 1997 collaboration with swing-era legend Doc Cheatham, a key early mentor. But Payton's ninth release as a leader is, in every way, a personal testament to where his muse resides now: He played every instrument, composed all the music, wrote the words and produced the album. And when Concord passed on Bitches, he found someone to remix it and a new label to distribute it.

The record will be issued by the German label In and Out on Nov. 8. In the meantime, Payton joined us for the latest SER Sitdown to talk about his new groove-focused recording, breaking out of the strictures of jazz tradition and—forget the album title—how women have had a sweeping impact on his band ...

Nick DeRiso: Bitches moves around within the black-music aesthetic, sounding at times like soul, like jazz, like quiet storm, like funk. That's clearly surprised some people who like to pigeonhole performers who come out of the jazz tradition.

Nicholas Payton: As always, my desire is to reach as many people as possible. Regardless of whatever type of record I've made, I've always had that in mind. I always tried to create what I thought was very beautiful music, something that felt good—something that inspired them to dance or to be reflective, if they wanted to. That was always the goal, so the new album is something I have been working toward for quite some time. For me, it's not quite a surprise. It seems like the natural progression from where I wanted to go. If you look at certain elements of my records, in terms of my love for R&B in the past, I have recorded songs and covered songs within the idiom. I have included lots of different textures on my records. To me, this is the natural progression from where I have been headed for a while. It's very groove-oriented, sensual, feel-good music. I can see the idea of it being not a so-called “jazz record" might be jarring to some, but I think it's within the tradition of Nicholas Payton records.

DeRiso: You were originally part of the so-called Young Lions movement, though, which seemed to value that traditional approach over all else. Did you feel closed in by that?

Payton: I've always shunned that movement. It was nothing we decided to be a part of of. It was thrust on us. Even then, to me that always seemed silly. There was all this attention garnered around us because we were young and novel. It was kind of cool to see this kid on stage playing music perhaps for an older demographic. My whole thing was to cultivate longevity, though, not just being appreciated because it was cute that I was 20 something. I studied with the masters and learned as much about music as possible so that my career had longevity. There was a certain time where I had an intense focus on the tradition, because the older cats did not make it easy for us. They were extremely detailed in their craft, and to get a glimpse at what they did requires an intense amount of study. In order to do that, I actually put a lot of the things I loved on the back burner for number of years. I wanted to give the tradition at lot of attention, but it never made me a traditionalist—which is why it took me forever to do the Louis Armstrong tribute record (2001's Dear Louis). Out of the gate, there were all of these comparisons. I was humbled to be thought of as an ancestor to him, but I never wanted to be pigeonholed in that way. I always wanted to dispel the notion that this music is some kind of museum piece. I do believe that I am upholding the tradition, but in my own way.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REVIEW: With 'Bitches,' Nicholas Payton tries to sort through the birth and death of relationship, from winking come-on and dizzying passion over to angry recrimination and legal paperwork.]

DeRiso: You ended up remixing Bitches, after the original label apparently balked at its R&B flavor and street-level subject matter. Now it's set for release on the German In + Out label. What changes can listeners expect?

Payton: My feeling is, if you are going to do a record like this, it's best to get the people who work within this idiom, so that's what I did. The original was cool, but I wanted a different mix. There were certainly things that I felt could be better. I recruited Tom Soares, who's worked with Erykah Badu (New Amerykah, parts one and two) and John Legend. It's more beefed up; there's a lot more bottom—and that's indicative of this music. Frankly, it sounds like a completely different record. I think it was a good move. Not that it was bad before, but now that it has been mixed this way, I can't imagine it another way.

DeRiso: “Freesia" from the new record, featuring Esperanza Spalding, is an older song—one that goes back to your early New Orleans band the Time Machine. That shows how R&B has been a part of your music from the first.

Payton: I don't know if it's the best example. Go back as a far as “When the Saints Go Marching In" on (1996's) Gumbo Nouveau and there are R&B kind of sounds. I love sus chords; that was the prominent sound of 1970s' R&B—and that was the first chord on the first record. That's how it all started (on 1994's From This Moment). I've always favored that. When I reharmonize tunes, I do so with that sensibility. That's what I love. I was heavily influenced by guys like Herbie (Hancock) and (Wayne) Shorter. They were not credited with it, but they are the ones who wrote the first R&B chords—those sounds now associated with guys like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.

DeRiso: Let's talk about the album title, which has garnered its share of criticism. Do you counter charges of misogyny by pointing to the number of women in your Television Studio Orchestra? Women make up the entire reed section.

Payton: It adds a different sensibility to my band. But I just try to hire the best musicians possible. I don't look at people as being white or black, or male and female. It's: 'Can you do the job; can you play?' I will say that women balance out the energy in the band. With men, there is a certain pressure to suppress their femininity in expression—to hide the vulnerable side. To me, if you are going to be an artist, you have to be in touch with that, and that's where women reside. When it comes to the band, they are very passionate women, but they are strong. There are a lot of misconceptions about women, and their presence in my band works against that. It shows how badass they can be. They stand toe to toe with anybody in our band.

DeRiso: Some will be surprised by your measured responses here—in particular followers of yours on social media. As brash, funny and sometimes profane as you are online, there is a far more reserved demeanor in interviews like this one.

Payton: I find people have a problem accepting wide parameters of expression. My demeanor is not necessarily one or the other. I can be shy and reserved and have little to say to some of my closest friends. Sometimes, I just don't have shit to say. Other times, I do. Sometimes, it's profane; sometimes, it's profound. But life itself is a contradiction. We live in those cycles—night and day, black and white, males and females. All of those things are inside of us. I'd like to be able to express all of those things. Besides, I think it's silly to think you know any one through Twitter. It's funny to me how upset people get. They think they can size you up by that. It's ridiculous. I feel like, if this is going to cause people to have this reaction, I want to challenge those ideas. I want to challenge what you think, and perhaps use it. The Internet is something that is intrinsically dead and soulless; why not inject as much feeling as possible? If I'm going to be on social networks, I might as well be very present—rather than just promoting gigs. I don't do that musically; I'm not like that in real life. I might as well use it to my advantage. And it's been a crucial part of my marketing and developing this record. There has been more talk and more press about this record than anything I have ever done, and all of that is based on social media—that direct link to fans.

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