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Nicholas Payton: Playing Strong and Playing Blue

R.J. DeLuke By

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Trumpeter Nicholas Payton started out years ago as a musician known for being steeped in the traditions of his New Orleans origins. The "young lion" of about fifteen years ago had a brash, bold sound. He even produced a Louis Armstrong tribute—Dear Louis (Verve, 2001)—and did an album working with the classy Armstrong contemporary Doc Cheatham—Doc Cheatham & Nicholas Payton (Verve, 1997). But he continued to grow and explore other avenues, showing contemporary influences with the release of Sonic Trance for Warner Brothers records in 2003.

While continuing to explore musical avenues, his playing got better and better, consistently placing him among the favorites in polls of fans and critics. Now, with the release of Into the Blue, on Warner's Nonesuch imprint, Payton says he is displaying various approaches in music that he enjoys. It's a solid disc of ten tunes, mostly from the pen of Payton. Even thought he admits going into the project with no specific direction in mind, Into the Blue emerges showing Payton as a thoughtful composer and a player who pays as much attention to his sound as his plentiful technique. It's a very solid album.

"Many of the tunes are very moody in the conception," he says, explaining the origin of the title. "Since blue and blues are synonymous with jazz and the overall feeling of what I was trying to capture with this record, more so than any particular genre or style, if you will. I was more or less trying to captivate a feeling of pensiveness, or melancholy; one of great music that is very simplistic and very beautiful at the same time. Blue is a color that is very representative of that kind of music."

He adds, "The record even changed conception from the moment I started working on it, as far as who was going to be on the record. Even the tunes. Many of the compositions I planned to be on the record didn't make it on the record. Many tunes that we actually performed and recorded that I thought would be on the record I let go over time, after listening to the material over and over again. It seemed like certain tunes just worked better for the flow of the record than other pieces. The concept of this record is really one of no concept at all. I went into the studio with no preconceived ideas of what I wanted to do other than just try to play music from the heart and hopefully give that feeling to the listener."

Based on that assessment, it's a grand success. It has moments of beautiful melancholy, and also upbeat swing. The sound of the horn is at the center and Payton's playing is inventive, not a chops exercise.

Nicholas Payton "I feel like on this record, I found a way to blend all these different things that I like to do. On one record, maybe I focused on one aspect, or one type of song more than another. [On the new disk] I found a way to more singular all the many different things that I love in music. It's an ongoing process. I feel like I'm getting closer and closer to finding a singular way to approach all the many things that I enjoy."

"Drucilla," starts out with a haunting, melodic trumpet ballad where Payton's sound, not multi-notes, carries the day, before picking up the pace with thoughtful piano by Kevin Hays over the rhythms. Payton's solo uses space and pacing. "Let It Ride" is another melodic piece in the mainstream, sweet and mellow blowing over a faster, tight, rhythm. "Triptych" is more contemporary in its rhythm and melody line, and Payton negotiates with strong and thoughtful playing. Drummer is funky without being maudlin and as the pace heats up, so do drums and trumpet. "Nida" has a funky 'Nawlins sway that puts the trumpet in a similar buoyant mood. "Blue" finds Payton, with muted trumpet, floating over a slow ballad in a Milesian mood.

"Miles was one of my first inspirations on the trumpet, so his inspiration and influence are always a part of what I do to some degree. There are two great trumpeters—there were many—but two who I like to refer to as the Old Testament and the New Testament, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis," says Payton. "They completely redefined the sound and the approach of the instrument; equally so, but in different ways. Their influence is inescapable. You can't play the trumpet and play jazz without summoning at least one of those two guys in some way or another. I think Miles said it best about Louis Armstrong when he said you can't play a note on the horn that Louis Armstrong hasn't played already. I think the same can be said for Miles, in a different way."

On "Blue," Payton also sings a lyric, slow and soft. The voice is something he has used before, and something he is incorporating more into his performances. He says the experience of singing helps him be more thoughtful when it comes formulating certain trumpet solos.

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