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Nicholas Payton

Nicholas Payton

Nicholas Payton
@ the PizzaExpress Jazz Club
10 April 2018

Click an image to enlarge.

Biography

Nicholas Payton grew up across the street from Louis Armstrong Park, historically known as
Congo Square, situated deep in the Treme, the neighborhood home base of many seminal New Orleans musicians and artists. In the 19th century, on Sundays only, enslaved Africans were allowed to gather in the public space of Congo Square to openly express African culture through singing, dancing and the playing of drums. Payton’s mother, Maria, is a former operatic singer and a classically-trained pianist, who at 70, still performs in church; his father Walter, a bassist-sousaphonist and music educator was a mainstay on the Crescent City music and recording scene. He would take his young son to gigs. He gifted Nicholas a trumpet when he was four. “Our house became a rehearsal space for whatever band my father was in,” Payton recalls. “We had a big living room and a grand piano, and other instruments. Trumpet appealed to me most of all the instruments I saw around, and I got one for Christmas when I was four.”

As his childhood progressed, Payton also became a proficient practitioner of tuba, trombone,
woodwinds, piano, bass and drums. Before the age of 9, he sat-in with the Young Tuxedo
Brass Band, a unit formed at the turn of the century that specialised in traditional repertoire. By 11, he received his first steady gig in the All Star Brass Band, a group of peers led by
Trombone Shorty’s oldest brother, James Andrews, who were deeply influenced by the
rhythmic and harmonic extensions of various bands. Mardi Gras Indian music was “in my backyard,” and he played no small number of rhythm-and-blues and hip-hop sessions. “I played all sorts of music,” Payton says. “I did everything.”

As a small child, Payton took as role models the ‘kool kats’ who attended his father’s wee hours rehearsals - drummers James Black and Herlin Riley; saxophonists Fred Kemp and Earl Turbinton; trumpeter Clyde Kerr, Jr.; pianists Ellis Marsalis and Professor Longhair.
“When the guys would take a break, I’d jump on the drums or pick up something else,” Payton recalls. “My father also taught at my elementary school, and after school I’d jump on different instruments in the band room and learn how to play them. So, I was developing my multi instrumentalism long before I was a professional.”

Not long after joining the All Star Brass Band, Payton started digging into his father’s record
collection and came across Miles Davis’ “Four and More,” with George Coleman, Herbie
Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. “I put on the second side first, and from the moment I heard Tony’s 8-bar intro on sock cymbal, I was like, ‘I want to play music for the rest of my life.’ I listened to that record every day, to the point where I learned all the solos. I wasn’t trying to transcribe them. I’d just listened to it so much that I learned all the music, every bassline, everything.”

“After that, I listened to Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay,” and then I went to Clifford Brown. Then I went to Louis Armstrong, who I wasn’t really into at the time. Even though I was playing in brass bands, I saw myself as doing something more modern. Wynton Marsalis and Terence Blanchard were my hometown heroes. I wanted to go to New York and play with Art Blakey and do what they did. But Wynton told me, ‘All that stuff you’re checking out is cool, but you need to check out Pops.’ I was like, ‘Man, I don’t want to listen to that Uncle Tom music.’ I thought about the handkerchiefs and bucking eyes, the things that were shameful and debilitating to Black people, and I didn’t want any part of it. But through Wynton’s influence, I started investigating Armstrong, and found Pops was the catalyst for all of this other stuff that I love and listen to. I developed a simpatico.”

Payton’s ability to infuse early 20th century repertoire with idiomatic authority and life force
elicited a comment from the late trumpeter Adolphus ‘Doc’ Cheatham - who shared
bandstands with the seminal pioneers of the 1920s and beyond, and was 91 when he recorded the Grammy-winning “Doc Cheatham & Nicholas Payton” in 1996 - of Payton, born two years after Louis Armstrong’s death, he said, “He is the greatest of the New Orleans-style trumpet players that I’ve ever heard. And every time I hear him, he sounds better and better. I haven’t heard anybody like him since Louis Armstrong.”

On the strength of his New Orleans upbringing and various concert appearances playing
Armstrong repertoire on Jazz at Lincoln Center engagements with Marsalis, Payton - who had already established bona fides as a consequential modernist trumpet voice as a member of Elvin Jones-led ensembles on various tours and albums (Youngblood, Going Home and It Don’t Mean A Thing) - was soon branded as “the second coming of Armstrong.”

“There are worse people to be compared to,” Payton jokes. “But my albums weren’t all
Armstrong tunes, and yet that was the story attached to me, while I was actually doing a lot of other things. People thought I was sitting at home studying him, but I’m not an Armstrong aficionado, although I loved playing his music. I haven’t transcribed a lot of Armstrong. I just got it. It felt natural, even the way I hold my horn up, like Pops. I felt like I was channelling him more than playing a style.”

“You have to be confident enough to allow yourself to let these spirits speak through you when it’s time for them to speak, and to know that you’re going to remain intact, that it’s not going to take anything away from you. The real masters take the path of becoming a master by studying the masters, then shedding the skin of that master and moving on. I’ve been through that process with a lot of different people. For me, it would always come about by hearing a recording when I was working on someone. For instance, there was a period when I wanted to be Freddie Hubbard. I wanted to know everything about him that I could, almost like method acting, so that I wasn’t playing a style, but could channel his spirit to the point where I could become him. Then I did the album “Fingerpainting” with Mark Whitfield and Christian McBride and I started the journey cycling out of that. But every master I studied, be it Miles, Clifford Brown, or Pops, I went through that same process. Each time, I learned more skilfully how to shed the trappings of that person’s particular vocabulary.”

With the 2001 Armstrong homage, Dear Louis, Payton said “farewell to a perspective on
playing music in terms of a repertory view of the masters,”
and hello to the notion “that I would solely create music from my perspective as a young man in this world today.” That perspective, he adds, ties directly to his formative New Orleans experiences.

“New Orleans is there in obvious ways on albums like “Gumbo Nouveau” or “Dear Louis,” which are explicit homages,” Payton says. “But the central thread through all of my work, not only in the Paytone catalogue, but back to the beginning of my Verve days, is just the sound of what New Orleans music is. People often associate New Orleans music with traditional music, or second line - that beat, or how the polyphonic improvisational element works between the tailgate trombone and the obbligato clarinet or the lead trumpet. But subtle things often go unrecognised. “On Numbers, for example, you can hear an obvious New Orleans influence on ‘Twelve,’ which is more or less an adaptation of a Zigaboo Modaliste groove from the Meters, and on ‘Thirteen,’ where the second section goes into a New Orleans second-line groove. But everything about my music - harmonically, in terms of the movement and style - sounds like New Orleans to me. For example, Fender Rhodes is part of the sound of the first music I remember hearing, around 1975-76. I was at a birthday party for someone, and Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Wish’ came on. It was like I was snake-charmed right to the speaker. That was it. I grew up hearing guys like Ed Frank, Eddie Collins and even Ellis Marsalis on Fender Rhodes and that association is there on Numbers.”

Payton adds: “If my music sounds like anybody’s, it’s probably more like James Black’s than any other one person I could name. “Into the Blue,” which a lot of people missed, is essentially an album in the post-Trad New Orleans tradition of James Black and Ellis Marsalis.” In his deployment of out-of-the-jazz-box sonic textures on the 1998 CD “Nick At Night,” which included harpsichord and celeste, or of Fender Rhodes on Dear Louis, Payton foreshadowed 21st century Black American Music practice. “That’s the sound of music now, but at the time, the jazz environment was just not open to you doing a lot of that,” he says. “When I did Sonic Trance, it was like I had committed treason against the jazz world, and it polarised my supporters. This was around the time a lot of the ‘young lions’ were wanting to reclaim the music we grew up hearing, and did overt funk-electronic projects, because this is more who we are. Now everybody does groove music or hip-hop or has Fender Rhodes or what-have-you and it’s almost weird for young cats to swing, which is a whole other problem.”

Since 1995, Payton has functioned primarily as a leader, though he has been a sideman on
such upper-echelon, high-profile projects as Roy Haynes’ “Birds Of A Feather,” “SF Jazz
Collective,” “Blue Note 7,” “Ninety Miles,” and “Dr. John,” and on albums by valued bandmates like Tim Warfield and Adonis Rose. He cites Rose, a New Orleanian, “as central to my having the New Orleans rhythmic feel” in his first band, which also included pianist Anthony Wonsey and bassist Reuben Rogers, either alto saxophonist Jesse Davis or Warfield on tenor and soprano saxophone. “We were playing acoustic, straight-ahead music, but we could play a Jelly Roll Morton tune, or bebop, or something free, or something in the 1960s Miles Davis tradition, or something coming out of the classic John Coltrane Quartet, or something funky, or something with a hip-hop groove, not only within a set but within a tune,” Payton says. “Our albums were far broader than the image created around me.” Warfield and Rose remained in Payton’s next group, Soul Patrol, with organist Larry Goldings and guitarist Peter Bernstein. As his canvas expanded during the ‘00s, Payton used pianistkeyboardists like Kevin Hays and Robert Glasper, and recruited percussionist Daniel Sadownick as a regular bandmate. “Once Daniel joined us, my concept locked in,” Payton says.

Nicholas Payton

Nicholas Payton

Nicholas Payton

Nicholas Payton & Barry Stephenson

 Nicholas Payton, Barry Stephenson bass & Joe Dyson

 Nicholas Payton, Barry Stephenson bass & Joe Dyson

 Nicholas Payton, Barry Stephenson bass & Joe Dyson


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