Nicholas Payton Trio at Dazzle

Geoff Anderson By

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Nicholas Payton Trio
Denver, CO
March 5, 2016

Payton or Peyton? Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. They're both from New Orleans. Both Payton and Peyton are in the entertainment business. They've both recently wrapped up brief stays in Denver. And they are (or in the case of Peyton, were) a couple of the best in their respective businesses.

Payton played is last gig in Denver Sunday night as part two of a two-night stand at Dazzle. Peyton played his last gig in Denver about six weeks ago on January 24 in a 20 to 18 victory over the New England Patriots. Payton will almost certainly play more gigs in Denver in the future. Peyton won't. Peyton needed another 10 or 21 or 52 guys (depending on how you count) to work his mile high magic. Payton required only two others; drummer Joe Dyson and bassist Gerald Cannon.

A trumpeter-led trio? No chording instrument? Well, Sonny Rollins did it, for a while anyway. But it's not common. Before the show, followers of Payton's career weren't worried, however, knowing that he's taken to performing on the piano in recent years. Indeed, the stage was set up with three keyboards in addition to a trumpet stand. Payton stayed in the pocket all night, both groove-wise and physically—safely surrounded by his keyboards who didn't allow a single sack all night long. He went with a no huddle offense all evening, audiblizing at the line of scrimmage and sometimes giving hand signals to his two receivers, Dyson and Cannon, in mid-play.

The first set featured nearly all material drawn from his latest album Letters (Paytone Records, 2015). Letters is a double CD with 26 songs, one for each letter of the alphabet. The tunes are simply designated with a single letter. The set unfolded nicely with Payton proceeding in alphabetical order until he followed "X" with "F," at which point both librarians in the audience fainted.

In his later years, Peyton focused solely on passing, no running for him. Payton, on the other hand, multitasked throughout the evening. He played keyboards more than anything. He had three at his disposal; the Dazzle grand piano plus a vintage Rhodes electric piano with a Hohner Clavinet on top. Even when he stuck strictly to keyboards, he would sometimes play chords on the grand with his left hand and use one of the electronic keyboards for the melodic line. But what was fairly unusual was his trumpet and keyboard playing simultaneously. Anybody who's played trumpet for more than a half an hour or so knows that you can play it with only your right hand. The thumb and pinky support the instrument leaving the other three fingers free to operate the valves. That's not to say it's easy, but it allowed Payton to play trumpet solos while backing himself up with chords while the rhythm section kept the groove.

Another thing trumpet players know is that hitting the high notes accurately and/or playing fast both require delicate and exacting lip control. Thus, when he went topside or put the notes per minute count into high gear, Payton gripped his horn with both hands. Not satisfied with just three keyboards and a horn, Payton added yet another texture to the band's sound by singing a couple songs each set.

Selections from Letters weren't the only plays Payton called Saturday night. He also went way back in the playbook for some standards such as "I Hear a Rhapsody" and "Tea for Two." The latter, while arguably staying within the letter-as-song-title concept ("Tea!"), was one of the more frenetic tunes of the evening with Payton constantly and quickly switching back and forth between all his keyboards and his trumpet. Another couple of deviations from Letters occurred in the second set when he called up a couple of tunes from another one of his albums Numbers (Paytone Records, 2014) in which all the songs are named after...yes! numbers! We heard both "3" and "6."

Overall, the music, not surprisingly, focused on straight ahead jazz (although Payton doesn't necessarily like that term, preferring "Black American Music" or BAM) with excursions to closely related territory. For example, a few tunes contained just a touch of funk. A couple others sounded like Joe Sample and yet another song had a classic '60s soul-jazz bluesy shuffle. The closer of both sets, "I Want to Stay in New Orleans" fittingly had a Crescent City/Dixieland vibe. At one point, the band sounded like mid-70s Headhunters. Payton is not just a dabbler on the keyboards. He can really play. His playing was expressive and creative in a variety of contexts. Often with a delicate touch, he emphasized melody over showmanship.

Professional athletes rarely make it beyond 40. Peyton just called it quits at age 39. At age 42, Payton continues to grow as an artist and continues to expand his horizons, interests and sounds. Retirement for Payton seems far away.

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