Nicholas Payton: Sketches of Brilliance

Nicholas F. Mondello By

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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.


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