In conversation with nicholas payton
By Ted Panken
In 1996, Nicholas Payton, then 23, recorded a two-trumpet album with Adolphus ďDocĒ Cheatham, a 1905 baby, and a keen observer of the jazz continuum from the onset of a career that began only several years after Armstrongís first recordings. Deeply moved and impressed by Paytonís ability to infuse the repertoire from that era with idiomatic authority and life force, Cheatham remarked that Payton came as close to the Armstrong essence as anyone he had ever heard.
At the time, certain observers, confusing Paytonís feats of derring-do with with a sensibility drenched in atavistic revivalism, regarded him with a certain skepticism. The critique took a similar tone to the brickbats often hurled at Wynton Marsalis for his so-called ďconservatismĒóindeed, in 1988, Marsalis, as a sign of his regard, sent his then-15-year-old New Orleans homie a trumpet. Now 35, Payton has long since quashed such talk with a series of albums, most recently Into the Blue (Nonesuch), that bespeak an ample comfort zone with a trumpet continuum spanning Armstrong to Don Cherry, at the service of a conceptual sensibility that embraces the Hot Five and Weather Report in equal measure.
You might call Payton's ancient-to-future aesthetic a birthright. His family lived in the Tremaine district, home base for numerous seminal New Orleans musicians, across the street from Louis Armstrong Park, once known as Congo Square, the 19th century locus of the slave trade, one of the few places in the Antebellum South where African slaves were allowed to play the drums. During formative years, he played in the Young Tuxedo Brass Band, a unit formed at the turn of the century, which specialized in traditional repertoire, and also in the All-Star Brass Band, a group of peers deeply influenced by the rhythmic and harmonic extensions introduced to local vernacular by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. He soaked up the feeling of Second Line and Mardi Gras Indian rituals. His mother, Maria, was a former operatic singer and a classically trained pianist who eschewed a career to raise her family; his father Walter, a bassist-tubist and retired educator who is a mainstay of the thriving Crescent City trad scene, would take his young son to Bourbon Street gigs.
Joining me on WKCR-FM during a week-long engagement in support of Into the Blue at Manhattanís Jazz Standard in early June, Payton spoke at length of his current preoccupations.
Into The Blue is your first recording for Nonesuch, and your first since Sonic Trance, in 2003. Why so long?
Thatís a good question. I didnít really notice that it was that long, because I was doing so many other things. I was involved in the S.F. Jazz Collective for a number of years. I had several different bands. I went through several concepts. The time really seemed to float away, going through Katrina and so many other things on a personal tip. But I finally felt like it was time for me to do something. Iím glad I waited til I did, because what I was living through hadnít yet been fully realized. At the point when I recorded, I was right on the cusp of a change.
Titles can offer a window into what an artist is thinking. Into the Blue. . . ?
To me, the concept of this record was really one of no concept at all. I wasnít trying to do anything innovative, I wasnít out to impress. I wanted to try to create music that was beautiful, a music of simplicity, elegance and grace, yet very sophisticated at the same time.
You go back and forth between electric and acoustic environments, melding the flavors in an organic way, and you deploy Kevin Hays on the Fender Rhodes. Whatís the appeal of that sound to you?
I grew up in the Ď70s. Many clubs at the time didnít even have pianos, so cats would lug their Fender Rhodes around. So that was the first sound of jazz that I heard, watching my dad rehearse and play with bands, and also listening to R&B musicóStevie Wonder and Earth, Wind and Fire. Weather Report was one of my favorite bands, too. Itís very interesting that now my band has the same exact instrumentation as the Weather Report band I grew up listening to, which was around the time of Heavy Weather, with keyboards, bass, drums and percussionóand myself, of course. With this instrumentation and with these musicians, Iíve been able to seamlessly flow within the the many different genres that I love in music within one tune. Thatís sort of the idea.
How did this band come together? You have Marcus Gilmore, who seems to be in everyoneís band these days. . . .
Yeah, people are getting hip to him now!
Well, they have been. Heís been out with Chick Corea, and has been very well known on the New York scene for several years.
Well, I got him when he was 18. He was working with very few people at the time, among them Vijay Iyer and Steve Coleman. I actually met him when I was playing with his grandfather, Roy Haynes, in the Birds of the Feather band at the Blue Note, and he sat in. It was his 18th birthday. He blew me away. So as soon as I got an opportunity to have another drummer, I gave him a call.
Tell me how youíre thinking about rhythm these days. You play all the instruments, so youíre able to be very specific about the sounds you want.
I was very specific on this record in terms of grooves. In fact, many of the tunes, I wrote the groove first, before any melody, or any harmony with changes, basslines and whatnot. I wanted the dance element to be prevalent. Growing up in New Orleans, I saw jazz in a social context. Many times jazz is performed in performing arts centers or jazz clubs, where people are very restricted and in their seats. But I grew up in an environment where it was nothing to wake up one day and go outside and hear a band, and before you know it, people are dancing on their rooftops and on top of cars. I wanted to embody that feeling of dance and jazz, with rhythm being the center point, and harmony used as color, just to make things pretty and beautiful.
There are various Payton stories, all very laudatory, from musicians, who say, ďYeah, he played the bass and he could have made the gig on the bassĒ or . . . well, I guess your father is a bassist. But the same on the drums or whatever else. Do you keep up on all of them?
I try to keep up. The last couple of years that I havenít played the other instruments as much, because Iíve been really shedding hard on the trumpet. But yeah, I have all the instruments at home and I play them on occasion.
Do you think that affects the way you think about line, or musical expression in soloing and compositions?
Yes, definitely. When I compose, I try to think in terms of how things lay on a particular instrument. Also, sometimes it helps to be able to demonstrate a certain feel Iím hearing that canít be notated, or just to have an orchestral approach to playing and improvising. Many times for me itís not about the instrument, but just the sound and getting in a creative space. So sometimes when Iím playing, I may be the bass player. I may be the drummer. It ceases to become a trumpet, and those lines of demarcation become blurred. So it helps in trying to be a total musician as opposed to just a trumpet player.
Youíve been doing mostly your own projects these days. Anything outside of your own work?
Not too many things. One thing Iím very excited about will happen in August, at the Oslo Jazz Fest, Weíre doing a recreation of the Miles Davis-Gil Evans version of Porgy and Bess, with Maria Schneider conducting, with my bassist, Vicente Archer, and Kendrick Scott on drums.
Because of your instrumental abilities and conceptual scope, youíve been accepted as a major voice on your instrument from the beginning of your career. How do you approach a project like Porgy and Bess, or Louis Armstrong repertoire, which youíve heard countless times, with a blank slate?
First, Iíve always had a tremendous amount of respect for tradition and the guys whoíve come before me. In fact, many past projects, like Gumbo Nouveau, where I updated a lot of the older New Orleans classics, and Dear Louis, my tribute to Louis Armstrong, were homages, in a wayóbut at the same time I always try to figure out a way to inject my personality and my feeling into it. Otherwise, itís not honest, to me. I mean, Iím not Louis Armstrong, Iím not Miles Davis, but Iíve spent a considerable amount of time listening to these guys and studying their works.
But even when I was transcribing some of their solos when I was younger, I wanted to get so inside their character that I could improvise a solo ŗ la Miles 1956, or, say, 1958, or 1963, without necessarily playing any of his licks verbatim. Same thing with Louis Armstrong. Same thing with Clifford Brown. I wanted to be at the point where I could sort of summon their spirits, so that it was free improvisation, not just verbatim regurgitation of licks and phrases. Approaching it like that perhaps makes it easier for me to feel expressive within an idiom, because Iím not looking at it like a style, Iím looking at it like an expression. When you do that, itís open for all and anything to happen.
As a young guy soaking up the vibrant musical culture of New Orleans, you were positioned to witness some of the best musicians in town rehearse at your house with your father, Walter Payton. Was your learning process one of making decisions in real time after learning the fundamentals, or were you a stylistic emulator early on? In other words, you were playing Louis Armstrong with extreme accuracy and soul at a young age, and you got a lot of press for being able to do that. How much had you studied those solos?
I listened to the music played the music quite a bit. But I know maybe two or three Armstrong solos; there are a handful of Miles solos that I actually sat down and learned. Same thing with Clifford Brown. I didnít spend a lot of time transcribing a whole lot of solos, because that goes against the idea. Like I said, I wanted to be able to understand the creative inspiration behind the artist, not just the notes. I wanted to put myself in a position where Iím sitting in the middle of the band, and this energy more or less is flowing through me. A lot of times I would do concerts, and people would say, ďYeah, you played that Armstrong solo beautifully.Ē I did a concert of Clifford Brown with Strings, and very informed journalists thought I was playing the actual solosóand I wasnít. Itís just that I understand the character of certain cats so well, I can become them almost.
Itís a strange thing. Iím not just trying to say I am them. But I am very sympathetic to their spiritual energy. So I donít feel bound. When I did Dear Louis, I knew that was not the end of me playing in a traditional New Orleans style, as many folks interpreted me saying, but the end of me summoning those spirits in the way that I had been. From now on, Iím only going to play me. Thatís not to say I wonít play any New Orleans style, or any post-bop Ď60s style. I no longer look at it from the point of view of referring to the past any more, as perhaps I once did. I only look at it as an expression in the now. Now, I think that it was important for me to do that then. But you see, once I was able to sound and play just like Louis Armstrong, then it wasnít necessary for me to do it any more. Once I got to the point I heard a record of myself and I sounded exactly like Freddie Hubbard, then I knew that had to die.
You must be very objective listening to yourself.
Iím my own worst critic! The last couple of years, the years that I wasnít recording, I recorded almost every gig I did, and spent a lot of time listening to myself, so that I could transcribe me, almost like trying to find my sound within the center of all this. Thatís why Iím glad I waited all that time, because it gave me a chance to discover myself perhaps in a way I hadnít on other records. Thatís not to say that they werenít meóthey were me at that time. But I think this record is more an amalgam of all the things Iíve done. Itís not a departure, but itís as though Iím embracing all the things that were me, and hopefully pointing somewhat in the direction of perhaps whatís to come.
Who were some of your direct trumpet mentors? Iím talking about people you knew in New Orleans. I know Clyde Kerr was very important to you.
Yes, and still is. Wendell Brunious. Leroy Jones. The late, great Teddy Riley. Those were the four cats I checked out and really understood. Long before I heard any records or anything, these guys I knew since I was born.
Now, Clyde Kerr is not averse about going to the outer partials, if necessary, in his musical expression, and the other three trumpeters you mentioned, in order to function in the workaday world of New Orleans music, had to play the entire timeline as part of their musical production.
I find New Orleans musicians to be amongst the most unbiased, open cats in terms of jazz music, contrary to what people may think of New Orleans as so tradition-based. Cats donít separate or distinguish between styles. You might do 2-3 gigs in a day. Someone like Clyde Kerr is best known for his work in the avant-garde, but heís equally at home playing traditional jazz music, which a lot of folks donít know. He has a beautiful sound, which is not often associated with avant-garde trumpet playing. Itís almost like music has to sound abrasive for people to think of it as being innovative. But Clyde Kerr has one of the prettiest trumpet sounds Iíve ever heard. All those guys do. All the New Orleans guys on trumpet, itís sound first. Itís always important. I remember reading a Down Beat interview with Woody Shaw in the Ď70s. He said, ďSound is the most important thing.Ē Thatís what people feel, thatís what people hear, and thatís your spiritual energy.
Did these guys teach you about the importance of sound production?
Theyíd just play. It wasnít a specific thing.
Itís the sound that was in your ear, though.
Yeah. When I heard that growing up, that is what made me want to play the trumpet. Hearing how the trumpet can call people to attention. In all the references in the Bible to people coming together or some type of grand alert, thereís always a trumpet used. The trumpet is a very powerful instrument. Itís a big responsibility. You can affect the energy in a room. Iím very sensitive to that at this point. I want to try, if I can, to put as much love and beauty in peopleís lives as possible through my sound.
After Hurricane Katrina, you left New Orleans, but youíve been back for a year or so. Post-Katrina New Orleans is very different than the New Orleans you grew up in. How do you see the state of things?
I remember first going back after I was away, remembering how things looked the last time I saw them and seeing how completely different they look now. I couldnít believe it. It brought me to tears. Itís like being in a horrible dream. Thatís actually changed quite a bit since I first came back, but itís not where it needs to be. A lot of factors are involved in why, still to this day, three years later, things havenít changed to the degree they could. Iím hopeful that it can be restored, but the people will have to make the effort. We canít wait for someone to make it happen for us.
We hear that in the Treme neighborhood, where second line and brass band traditions have been part of the way of life for most of the 20th century, police now are breaking up second line gatherings, almost using those occasions as a flashpoint to assert their authority. It must be a maddening thing to see for someone who came up in that culture.
I just look at all of these things as distractions. For me, at this point, itís all about love. I donít want anything to take me out of that energy. Even if itís something catastrophic, I just want to stay in that zone, love. Thatís it.
Interview notes: Nicholas Payton was interviewed on WKCR by Ted Panken on June 5, 2008.