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Nicholas Payton: Sketches of Brilliance

Nicholas F. Mondello By

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Trumpeter Nicholas Payton has distinguished himself over the decades as a continually evolving artist of significant vision, artistry and focus. He's a musician who knows, respects and displays his roots, knows where he's at now and where he's going creatively. Under his own BMF Records label, Payton recently released Sketches of Spain a new recording with Payton performing the Miles Davis/Gil Evans classic live—a daunting accomplishment. His original composition, "Black American Symphony" is a forthcoming release.

All About Jazz: Nicholas, on behalf of All about Jazz, I'd like to thank you for taking time today to speak with us about Sketches of Spain and other current and future projects you're involved in.

Nicholas Payton: Thank you.

AAJ: Having listened to your recording of Sketches of Spain and certainly that of Miles Davis, I want to ask you right upfront: What was the genesis of Sketches of Spain" What inspired or motivated you to take on this project?

NP: I would like to be able to have a beautiful reason to tell you why I did it. But, the truth of the matter is that I had no plans on recording it or even performing it. What happened is that I was scheduled to do a performance with the Sinfonieorchesterbasel of my "Black American Symphony" originally. And they decided they wanted to tie it into some larger concept which they came up with doing the music of Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, as well. So, they called the program "Miles, Duke and Nick." They performed a piece of Duke Ellington and then we added the Sketches of Spain And, I also did my "Black American Symphony" and all of it was recorded. And, so, I decided to release it.

AAJ: Now, you recorded this live?

NP: Yes.

AAJ: In Switzerland?

NP: Yes, in Basel.

AAJ: Did you have a relationship with that orchestra before?

NP: No, it was the first time we worked together.

AAJ: How did you find working with the European orchestra?

NP: It was cool.

AAJ: And, you used your own rhythm section?

NP: Yeah.

AAJ: The original Sketches of Spain was recorded in 1960 and is a seminal recording in the history of jazz.

NP: Certainly.

AAJ: You had to have some sense of challenge taking on such a recording. I know a couple of people have done some of Miles' things. Clark Terry did "Porgy and Bess."

NP: Yes, "Porgy and Bess."

AAJ: Has anyone else done Sketches of Spain?

NP: I think there are a few, but not a lot. And, I don't know of any live recordings of it.

AAJ: Why live? Did you want to get the spontaneity of the improvisation? You could have easily gone into the studio.

NP: Yeah. I like the energy of this performance in particular. I could have released a studio version. But, the energy of a lot of the performances we did, I felt that this one was the best.

AAJ: Now, when they did the recording, did they also record the "Black American Symphony?"

NP: Yeah. We recorded everything.

AAJ: How did your chops hold up?

NP: Yeah. I mean. I can't even tell you. The level of endurance to not only ... first of all, we rehearsed three days and all three days we did both pieces and the day of the first performance, we did a full dress rehearsal of everything. So, we did both Sketches of Spain and my symphony which both average 50 minutes and, you know, two hours later, we did the whole thing over again. I didn't save my chops. I played each time as if it was a real performance. I didn't conserve for the dress rehearsals. Yeah, just to get through the Sketches of Spain requires—as you know as a trumpet player—just to have the horn up to your face virtually for 40 minutes. And, it's not like a typical situation like where you take a solo and then a pianist has a solo and you come back in. Here, you have the horn to your lips pretty much the whole time. And, you don't get to the arc of the piece until "Solea," when you have this big crescendo. So, it's like running a marathon—literally.

AAJ: As a trumpet player, I'm amazed. Now that you've told me that you recorded the other material as well, the creative focus—I mean you must have lost five pounds, if you think about it.

NP: (Laughs). Yeah, I was in a certain space. The one thing I can say ... I had played "Sketches" before, so I understood what it would take to do that. But, to do both of them—to be quite honest—I didn't say this before hand, but, I doubted if I'd be able to make it. Just to get through it. Much less to play with any artistry or what have you. It was a huge undertaking, but, to have done it and to have come out on the other side and to have made music and an artistic statement, I have to say, I was pretty proud of myself.

AAJ: Finding out today that you recorded your "Black American Symphony" and "Sketches" floors me. That wasn't in your liner notes. At one level as a trumpet player, but, another in terms of creative focus—live! It took a "set" if you don't mind me saying.

NP: Ah-huh.

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