One Track Mind: Nicholas Payton, “Drag Dog” from #BAM Live at Bohemian Caverns (2013)

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This song, a new live interpolation of a Miles Davis cut from 1961’s Someday My Prince Will Come, might be the best argument Nicholas Payton has ever made for the use of the term Black American Music (or #BAM) instead of jazz.

Payton ignores the original’s lonely muted trumpet intro, putting down his own horn for a turn at that 1970s favorite, the Fender Rhodes. It’s an inspired choice in that the Rhodes remains an instrument from another era, despite its more widespread use these days — a turbulent era of big events, big conflicts, and big ideas. An era when jazz still sought to be a part of the musical conversation, before it became a curio cabinet filled with double-breasted suit-wearing caricatures.

As the shimmering, otherworldly sounds of that Rhodes ebbed and flowed, it finally became clear to me that Payton — author of an eruptively humorous blog where he treats “jazz” as a kind of too-conservative pejorative — might just be on to something. Music, and Davis carried this credo around as surely as he did that head-waggingly cool red horn, is an idea meant to be examined, absorbed and then challenged.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Nicholas Payton takes us into some key moments across his varied musical career, touching on ‘Sonic Trace’ and Satchmo while singing the Fender Rhodes’ praises.]

And Payton, whether you want to call this “jazz” or something else, does just that — switching to trumpet, over the tasteful accompaniment of Lenny White (of Return to Forever fame) and Vicente Archer, even as he continues adding a few splashes of color on the electric piano. From the first, Payton approaches the solo space with a more direct impetus than the rather laid back take from Davis’ group ever did. As White and Archer begin to slowly depress the gas pedal, though, Payton catches another gear too. Going from supple to immediate, he adds a few bright horn trills, straight out of the New Orleans tradition, then he keeps going — playing both instruments while referencing scratchy funk sides, hard bop masters and back-pew gospel, speaking to the head but also to somewhere below the waist.

Presented without the typical categorical touchstones that make this kind of capitulation and recapitulation seem so rote anymore, it boasts all the fizzy energy of true discovery.

Elsewhere on #BAM Live at Bohemian Caverns, recorded live in Washington, D.C. last November and released by BMF Records, you’ll find originals from Payton like “The African Tinge,” a feature for White in “Catlett Out of the Bag” and takes on other classics in “Frankie and Johnny” and “Pannonica.” For me, though, “Drad Dog” — in the way it seems to belatedly reanimate the restless muse of Miles Davis, even as it radically updates his song — is the perfect place to start.

Like the Fender Rhodes that dominates it, this update of “Drad Dog” is a throwback not to simpler times, but to more complicated ones.

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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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