Fully in command of his own musical career and doing whatever the hell he wants to do — witness the sounds and circumstances surrounding 2011’s Bitches — Nicholas Payton is the reserved combatant, the champion of #BAM (Black African Music) to replace the moniker of “jazz” while calling out hip-hop stars like Pharrell Williams for blurring of the lines between making music and stealing it. (“Blurring lines,” see what I did there?) The way he makes his case in anything he advocates often becomes more impactful in the calm, reasoned demeanor he strikes with his words.
If a musician’s state of mind truly informs his music, then Numbers, out this week from Payton’s private label Paytone Records, coolly delivers a message, too. It’s about natural flow, feel, and not actively composing music, but simply allowing the music to compose itself. That’s how the twelve pieces on Numbers came together for Payton, who performed these numbers on a Fender Rhodes intending to dub over his spotless trumpet over them, but stopped when he came to the realization that to do that would trample over the elegance, airiness and unforced grooves already laden all over these tunes.
Payton spells out his mission for Numbers this way:
It’s what Prince was going for on the Madhouse joints, but we leaned closer to Funk and Soul — with a flare of New Orleans, of course. It’s like Leon Ware and Marvin Gaye – ‘I Want You’ meets the vamps of The Meters and the cues of The Ohio Players, with a touch of Herbie Hancock and Patrice Rushen thrown in, and a dash of Jay Dee. But it don’t sound like none of that shit at the same time.
His backing band for these tracks recorded live in the studio over three days last December is the Virginia quartet Butcher Brown: Devonne Harris (keys), Keith Askey (guitar), Andrew Randazzo (bass) and Corey Fonville (drums). Payton, as we already noted, mans the Fender Rhodes, as he did for his prior release #BAM Live at Bohemian Caverns, but unlike Live, the only sign of his horn is found on the opening cut “Two,” a silky, subdued trumpet which tracks along the melody moving at a 6/4 amble and stays out of the way of an easy-going vibe, which gets a little rowdy only at the end when Fonville lets it all out but that’s the extent of any outwardly improvising.
That vibe doesn’t vary much the rest of the way; it’s the same vibe I get from Hancock, circa Mr. Hands or Grover Washington, circa Winelight but without the solos, and enough is left out so that the listener can fill in the gaps with his or her perceptions. Maybe someone else will hear Roy Ayers, Stevie Wonder or even early Jamiroquai in these recordings, and that openness to interpretation is intent of the music’s creator.
Almost imperceptibly, these vamps transfigure during the course of their runs and that’s where the jam approach to playing these tunes impacts them where careful studio treatments would only bleach out those distinctions. It’s also the very thing what keeps these unadorned performances interesting over repeat listens.
That looseness doesn’t mean that these cats can’t get tight; they’re very much together on “Three,” anchored by a good, funky bass riff working in perfect sync with rhythm guitar and drums. All Payton has to do is drop in his mellow chords and ride the wave. “Eleven” grooves like that, too. Subtle treatments of rhythms will often play a big role in shaping the songs; in addition to the unusual time signature on “Two,” there’s a Brazilian cadence alternating with a funky strut on “Five,” and shifting beats that form an undercurrent on “Nine.”
So Numbers has this retro attitude that in its construction reveals what’s missing in contemporary music today. Says Payton, “If someone wants you to describe what Numbers sounds like, tell them it’s like Nicholas and Butcher Brown took a time capsule back to 1973 and played a gig for the people demonstrating what’s happened in music for the past 40 years.”
On the other hand, this album could very well be imagined as Nicholas Payton and Butcher Brown playing a gig for people today to demonstrate how music was handcrafted forty years ago.