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.

AAJ: Miles played trumpet and flugelhorn on the original "Sketches" recording, you played trumpet completely across the date, right?

NP: Yeah. I don't really play flugel anymore.

AAJ: What about on the "Black American Symphony?"

NP: All trumpet. Actually on the "Symphony" I also play Fender Rhodes and I sing on one tune.

AAJ: On your Bohemian Caverns CD, you play trumpet while playing Fender Rhodes piano. Is that correct?

NP: Yes, that's correct.

AAJ: How do you do that? It's one thing to be ambidextrous, but, in terms of playing the changes and blowing. That's some focus and creative head thing.

NP: I like to do things that will challenge me to be a better musician. And I like to put myself in situations of things that probably I cannot do, so I can learn to do them. I mean, you can't get better doing the same things or things that you do already. You have to put yourself in situations that challenge you to be greater. To me, that's the only way to be better.

AAJ: Two things on that. You mentioned an interesting word—"evolve." Miles over the years was constantly evolving in terms of his own playing and going into different genres. Do you see yourself in that some mold now that you've move into symphonic composition. You're just 40 years old, you have plenty of miles to go on this journey. Do you see yourself evolving that way?

NP: I think if you look at my history—my track record—already speaks to that. I came up from New Orleans playing in the brass bands, playing traditional New Orleans music, but also, playing gigs with Clark Terry, one of the first cats who took me under his wing. He's one cat who's largely responsible for people starting to hear about me on the international and national scene. I studied Fats Navarro and Brownie and Bird, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw on up to, you know, Terence Blanchard and Wynton and Don Cherry. So, I've always done a lot of different things. One of my first real road gigs was on the road with Elvin Jones, which is another orbit from traditional New Orleans music. I played with Ray Brown, Roy Haynes. And, even if you look at my albums from my first album to Gumbo Nouveau and then the compositions on Nick at Night and my Dear Louis album, my first large ensemble album, to Sonic Trance, where I deal with electronic music to a vocal R+B album where I play all the instruments on Bitches. So, my body of work, if you look at it, I always place myself in different musical situations and environments to challenge myself and to stretch my boundaries and refused to be categorized and pigeon-holed into one type of thing.

AAJ: And Doc Cheatham, too. As an aside, Doc taught my uncle, who taught me. I met him as a very young kid.

NP: Yeah, Doc was a beautiful person. His last gig was a gig we did together in Washington, DC at Blues Alley. I played his last gig with him.

AAJ: Getting back to Sketches of Spain for a second, you talked about evolving and exploration a moment ago. On one of the selections, "Saeta" where you get into playing "multi-phonics"—the overtones. Can you tell me a little bit about that and talk to that, explain that technique for a general audience. What was that all about?

NP: Sure. "Multi-phonics" is when you simultaneously play more than one note, basically. It can be partials of two, three, four, five different notes. If you learn how to work the airstream, the possibilities are endless. So, with "Saeta," multi-phonics is actually something that I've been working on for quite some time. But, I have haven't really had ... you know, I don't really like to do things just because I've been working on them. So, just because I've been shedding on something, I'm not just going to go on a gig and play it if it's out of context. So, "Saeta" gave me a framework to finally be able to utilize some of these things because it's so spatial and it lends itself to that. I finally found an outlet for me to deal with—to play some of these things that I've been working on for quite some time.

AAJ: "Saeta." That was really an amazing performance. When I was listening to the CD I hadn't read the liner notes yet and I kind of got the idea, but, what I found most interesting was how well it fit with everything else that was going on.

NP: The thing that's interesting about it is that there's so much space. And, the way the drums sort of create this mantra feel. And, the orchestration—the way Gil Evans had it orchestrated—is that these chords sort of come out—come out of nowhere. These polychords. So, for me, I can play my chords, I can split my notes and play my multi-phonics and have this orchestra sort of mirroring me and I mirror that, playing these chords back and forth. It just really worked out to where—for me to have a situation to finally be able to use it in a context where it wouldn't seem out of context.

AAJ: Your rhythm section of Vicente Archer (bass), Marcus Gilmore (drums) and Daniel Sadownick (percussion). We're like 55 years ahead now from Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb. And Miles, of course, had a certain range of his playing abilities and so forth. Talk to me about the rhythm section on your "Sketches" and how they blended into the entire performance.

NP: We've been playing together for awhile now. I feel very comfortable playing with them and the language that we've developed over the years with one another. And, I felt it would be ideal to—because of their understanding of not only the history of this music, but, to the type of repartee we have established with one another. I felt it would be easier for us to make Sketches of Spain our own with deference and respect to Miles and Gil obviously, but not for it to be some type of repertory thing where we're just trying to recreate what they did and that it wouldn't be contrived,; that it would be a very natural expression.

AAJ: BMF Records. This is your own company?

NP: Yes.

AAJ: Please speak to me about why you initiated that business—you know, from a creative standpoint.

NP: Well, one thing ... I think I got tired of the idea of looking for another situation—another business model—to fit my identity. And, I think with all I've talked about over the years with the Black autonomy and with Black people having their own businesses and establishing their own economic base, it just seemed like the right time to go ahead and to create a business model that is a home for the things that I espouse on a conceptual level.

AAJ: Are you looking to have other artists on the label?

NP: Eventually, yes.

AAJ: Let's talk a bit about your "Black American Symphony." What was your thinking on that? Can you describe it for our readers?

NP: Sure. With that piece it was written right in the middle of the BAM movement. And, it was my symphonic interpretation and the musical culmination of all those ideas. Basically, I used what Dvorak called "Negro melodies." So, often times when musicians do projects with strings, it's a way of perhaps legitimizing what they do in trying to fit within a European construct. My idea was to take an orchestra—something largely associated with a European construct—but to rely heavily and totally on the Black aesthetic.

AAJ: Do they swing?

NP: Not in a literal sense. I didn't write any rhythms that require them to swing—from a purely rhythmic standpoint. But, to me, swing is not necessarily a triplet—it's not a notated feel. No, there are no swing eighth notes in terms of what I wrote for the orchestra. I didn't write any of that in the piece. I just had them as a pad and used the language of voice leading and the harmonic language.

AAJ: Full orchestra with strings?

NP: 73 pieces—Strings, French Horns. Oboes, English Horns.

AAJ: When will we hear it?

NP: I'm hoping to release it sometime before the end of the year or early next year.

AAJ: To jump back again to Sketches of Spain. What's been the reception? What have you heard on your end?

NP: So far it's been favorable.

AAJ: In your liner notes you mention that the charts are transcriptions.

NP: They are not Gil Evans' originals. So, they are not his original charts. They're transcriptions of the original performance. We did get them from the Gil Evans estate, but they are not in his pen or from the original score. I assume that the estate doesn't have them, but, I don't know if they even exist. So, I don't know who transcribed them, but, it's a transcription of the original.

AAJ: What's coming down the pike for Nicholas Payton? Projects? Things you can share.

NP: Speaking of working with other artists for the label, I'm currently working on a project with a young band that I've taken an interest in—they're called "Butcher Brown." They're based out of the Virginia area. This young drummer who's been working with me—his name is Corey Fonville. I actually met him when he was in college and I started using him on gigs when he got out. He has this band that plays funk—funky music—in an era when I see a lot of people are sort obscuring the beat and this whole Hip-Hop thing that it's like based off the One and sort of flamming, and kinda mixing duple and triple meter against each other, they're just straight down the pike and funky and it feels good. It's not "retro," but it has the feel of dance music when it felt good—like in the 70s. that sort of thing. So we're working on a record, an album right now.

AAJ: And, you're heading to Japan soon?

NP: Yes, I'm doing a tour with Sadao Watanabe. Heading out end of the month.

AAJ: What horn are you playing now?

NP: Bach, a Mt. Vernon.

AAJ: Mouthpiece?

NP: A Greg Black. I've been with him since '06-'07.

AAJ: Anything with your big band?

NP: Yeah, we're trying to work out some dates.

AAJ: You're like the cat on the old Ed Sullivan Show—the guy spinning all the plates.

NP: It keeps the mind active.

AAJ: On behalf All About Jazz, thanks, Nicholas this has been great!

NP: My pleasure. Thanks, Nick.

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