At this year’s Jazz Fest set, don’t expect trumpeter/keyboardist Nicholas Payton to play the classic jazz that in 1997 won him a Grammy for his album with legendary trumpeter Doc Cheatham. “But Doc’s in there!” declares Payton of the music from his new release, Afro-Caribbean Mixtape (Paytone Records), which he’ll feature at the 2017 festival. Listening to the album, a centuries-long musical journey through the African diaspora, Payton’s response is totally understandable.
“On these two discs, I wanted to represent as much of the full spectrum of black music from the beginning to the continuity of forever,” Payton says. “I wanted to represent it all and perhaps shed some light on things to come in the future. All this music is marketed as separate things and they have the same root source.”
Payton takes on this obviously joyful task by bringing together acoustic instruments, electronic samplings, a string section and elements of spoken word in a stylistic mix that allows the music to stand side-by-side so one can realize the roots and resemblances.
“Whenever I make an album I try to have a flow or a story to it,” Payton explains. “On this one, the thread between the songs is a bit more obvious certainly from a social-political standpoint. This is my most political album. How I put the songs together was as important to me as the songs themselves. Much in the way when I did the Sonic Trance album, it was about these moods and these vibes as opposed to this is a song and this is a song. To me it’s more like a movie, the songs are like characters and they are all central to the story.”
Joe Dyson’s drum roll opens “#BAMboula,” a tune that typifies Payton’s concept as even its title represents the coming together of musical worlds and eras. Payton explains #BAM as an acronymic hashtag for Black American Music. Bamboula is a drum and dance and the name of a composition by the renowned Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who was born in New Orleans in 1829 and was inspired to write the piece from memories of hearing the rhythms during his childhood.
Next we hear the spoken word of the late, great trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie offering, “Playing an instrument is a form of worship—I’ve been worshiping all of my life.”
Payton pulled this and several musical and spoken samples from lectures and the like that he knew he wanted to include from YouTube. “I’d go through all the information—kind of like a Rolodex in my mind—and pick things out,” he explains. “I kind of knew where all the bodies were so when it was time to go digging, I’d say, ‘Okay, I’ll get this out and get that out.’ I studied these artists and the black intellectuals like Dr. Carr [Howard University’s Dr. Greg Kimathi Carr] and Dr. Cole [Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, the director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art].”
Payton blows some beautiful classic trumpet on “#BAMboula” that seems to speak of the era of Gillespie and Miles Davis while Kevin Hays, onboard a Fender Rhodes, brings on the electrified sound accented by DJ Lady Fingaz’ turntable scratchings. The late drummer Art Blakey has the last word, announcing, “It is an art form because it is black music and because it started in New Orleans.” Like its namesake, “#BAMboula” ultimately turns out to be rhythmic dance music.
Throughout the discs, there are numerous musical and personal references—some recognizable and others less obvious. For instance, the groove-oriented “Reflexification (Midnight at Tyler’s)” gives a nod to Tyler’s Beer Garden, a great, now defunct, uptown New Orleans jazz club. It’s also included as a remembrance to the wonderfully soulful late saxophonist Alvin “Red” Tyler. Payton and company pay tribute to Walter “Junie” Morrison, a keyboardist, producer and composer with the Ohio Players who brought the world such classics as “Pain” and “Ecstasy” and helped drive George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic’s wild ride. “He was a brilliant musician and an important architect of the funk era,” lauds Payton, who plays trumpet, clavinet, Fender Rhodes and synthesizer and adds vocals to the fun and funky tune, “Junie’s Boogie.”
A quiet moment comes on Payton’s “Madmwazél Ayiti,” which, in his extensive and insightful liner notes, he describes as a “tip of the hat to the first free Black country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti” and a “salute to the spaces that [pianist] Herbie Hancock and [bassist] Ron Carter were known to get into during their stint in the Miles Davis Quintet.
“Madmwazél Ayiti” stands as a rarity as it is simply a lovely duet with Hays on acoustic piano and Payton playing his father’s—the late, wonderful Walter Payton—upright bass. Vicente Archer plays the same, old bass, vintage and brand unknown, throughout the recordings.
The reason for using it was simple. “We needed a bass for the session,” Payton explains. “Typically we’ve recorded outside of New Orleans so we didn’t have the opportunity to use it.”
“Initially it [the session] was as a rehearsal for our gig at [last year’s] Jazz Fest,” he continues. “We were getting the material together and I decided that while we were here, we should record it and it became my next album. We presented some of the material for the first time there at Jazz Fest—the title track, ‘Jazz Is a Four-Letter Word,’ ‘Junie’s Boogie’ and ‘Call and Response.’”
At Jazz Fest, where the trumpeter will take over all keyboard duties and electric bassist Braylon Lacy will replace Archer, Payton turns to inspiration from his father, Walter, by inviting dancers to interpret the music. “It actually harkens back to the day when my father used to perform with his band Gumbo File and he used to use Lulu Elzy and a couple of members of her troupe. So I’m kind of recalling that—seeing that. So the dancers will be improvising just like we do.”
Dancers are seen on the video of the song, “The Egyptian Second Line,” the title of which certainly inspires the imagination. For the tune on the album, Payton mans the big B-3 organ, among other instruments with percussionist Daniel Sadownick, who will be at the Fair Grounds, mixing it up strongly with drummer Dyson.
Payton, who has done a lot of writing for symphony orchestras and other orchestral projects, employs a string quartet for the album as he will at Jazz Fest. He reminds those who don’t necessarily associate violins and cellos with the music of the African diaspora that they too originated on the continent. “Pretty much everything we have, the beginning came out of Africa—it was the first civilization,” he says. “All those concepts started there and were adopted elsewhere. Early bands had violin players, spasm bands too and there is a whole black fiddle tradition even before jazz. Then there’s the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra with William Russell on violin.” The list, of course, goes on to the present day.
The lyrics of “Jazz Is a Four-Letter Word,” which are softly yet passionately spoken by the late drummer Max Roach—the phrase is the title of his unpublished autobiography—sum up the spirit and philosophy of Afro-Caribbean Mixtape. “I don’t separate Charlie Parker from Michael Jordan. I don’t separate Michael Jordan from Michael Jackson. I don’t separate Michael Jackson from Aretha Franklin… All of it exemplifies the intuitiveness of black creativity.”
Nicholas Payton, a modern man with an old soul, understands this, plays this and extends this knowledge and demonstrates its reality on Afro-Caribbean Mixtape. It’s in this environment where the conga, a descendant of one or more African drums, and the electronic keys and samplings, trumpet and acoustic instruments converse in the language of their ancestry. They are one.
“Just come to the Jazz Fest show or listen to the album with as little expectations as possible other than just to relax and enjoy and to be a part of the experience,” Payton advises. “The less you go in thinking what it is, the more it will unfold.”