Gimme Five: Nicholas Payton on Dear Louis, Fingerpainting, Sonic Trance

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On this special edition of Something Else! Reviews’ One Track Mind, we hand the reins over to the boundary-pushing Nicholas Payton, set to release his ninth project as a leader — a simmering R&B groover called Bitches — on Nov. 8.

The New Orleans-born trumpeter talks about bringing Louis Armstrong’s aesthetic into a new age, remembers a drummer-less project that helped us discover new depths in his playing, and rhapsodizes about the lasting joys of the Fender Rhodes …

“HELLO DOLLY,” (DEAR LOUIS, 2001): A surprising highlight from Payton’s long-awaited tribute to Louis Armstrong, this boundary-pushing large-ensemble take on “Hello Dolly” was transformed from its Broadway roots into something dark and simmering.

Nicholas Payton: I grew up playing Louis Armstrong, and Jelly Roll Morton, but it makes no sense for me to do what they did. I wanted to take those ideas and make it more inclusive of the era that I grew up in, with a sound that was more current. Not that those records ever get old, but that was how they expressed themselves. They were being true to what they thought and I have to do the same for me. That means it’s going to be a bit different. The fundamentals never change, but there are a lot of elements that do.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: New Orleans-born trumpeter Nicholas Payton goes in-depth on the album ‘Bitches,’ an R&B-infused project the promises to challenge jazz traditionalists.]

“I COVER THE WATERFRONT,” with Doc Cheatham (DOC CHEATHAM AND NICHOLAS PAYTON, 1997): A standout track from Payton’s Grammy-award winning collaboration with a 91-year-old legend whose career went back to Cab Calloway, where he held the lead trumpet chair from 1932-39. Cheatham also performed with Benny Carter, Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman and Fletcher Henderson, among others. That might have made the more contemporary turn Payton’s career has taken something of a surprise, though the younger trumpeter says Cheatham understood Payton’s forward-thinking muse.

Payton: He was very open minded. I think you would have to be, to be as fresh and creative as he was when he was 90 years old. He was always very encouraging of the things that I did, even though they were not how he chose to play. He understood why I needed to do what I did. At that time, I was not singing. I often wonder what he would think if he knew how much I was singing. I think he would dig that. Trumpeters who sing, like him and Clark Terry, were a big influence on me — though it took a while to get up courage to do it myself.

“THE KISS,” with Christian McBride and Mark Whitfield (FINGERPAINTING, 1997): Payton began forcefully pushing sonic boundaries well before this new project, memorably recording a set of Herbie Hancock songs (including “The Kiss,” from 1966’s soundtrack to the film “Blow Up”) in a drummer-less trio with the bassist McBride and guitarist Whitfield. The format gave him more room to improvise, and that seemed to open up new vistas.

Payton: There was definitely more space. I think, because the drummer wasn’t present, there was a certain clarity. You could hear my ideas. People I talk to say that’s a record that has been very influential for a lot of cats. I knew that when I recorded it, it was something special. You could hear my playing in a new way, because certain subtleties were no longer overshadowed by the drums. A light was brought out that was previously undetected. I knew something was different. All of these things that I had been working toward in my sound, finally you could hear it.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REVIEW: With ‘Bitches,’ Nicholas Payton tries to sort through the birth and death of relationship, from winking come-on and dizzying passion over to angry recrimination and legal paperwork.]

“TANTRIC,” (SONIC TRANCE, 2003) An ever-more challenging effort for anyone with a conservative idea about jazz, as Payton incorporated electronic elements and even hip hop in an album that would be nominated for a Grammy as best contemporary jazz album. He says Sonic Trance, though it felt like a dramatic departure, was actually part of a musical journey that had begun years before.

Payton: Texture has always been a really important element of music to me. That goes back to my first record, From This Moment, where I melded the textures of vibraphone and electric guitar. Then a little later, on Nick at Night, I used harp and celesta. Dear Louis was the first time I used a Fender Rhodes. After that, I knew that that was going to be end of me making a certain kind of record. That was sort of my overture and my farewell to making records of the previous aesthetic. From now on, I committed myself to the other music that I grew up listening to, as well as to so-called jazz music.

“FLEUR DE LIS,” (INTO THE BLUE, 2008): Payton’s first album as a bandleader since Sonic Trance found him moving further still away from the conventions associated the tradition-minded Young Lions. He focuses on a set of eight original tracks — many of which, like this one and “Nida” (written for Payton’s mother by legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band bassist Walter Payton, his father), connect ever more deeply to his own history. Payton took his first turn at singing on Into The Blue, but the album’s vibe was dominated by an increased use the Fender Rhodes, a foundation of the old-school soul fusion of Payton’s youth.

Payton: I was born in 1973 and as a child, when my father would have rehearsals at the house, that was the keyboard instrument of prominence. A lot of clubs didn’t even have pianos, so cats would lug those Fender Rhodes around. That was the only sound I heard. Later on, I found myself reaching back to the things that got me into music in first place — and it was a reawakening of the original creative spirit that led me to music. When I hear that sound, the Fender Rhodes, it just takes me back to that place.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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