“I want to embark on another journey that will include the music of my own generation,” Nicholas Payton said over coffee at Café Luna on Magazine Street in 2009. “I want my music to reflect all the records I listen to, not just the jazz records. When I went to the stereo as a kid, I put on records by Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire and Run-DMC. That’s who I am, and I want my music to reflect who I am.”
The trumpet star was wearing a black-and-gold Reggie Bush football jersey but allowed his glasses to slide down his nose towards his pencil mustache as if he were a soft-spoken scholar at Tulane. He never spoke in strident tones about his quest to take his music in a new direction; he described it calmly, as if it were an inevitable natural process. At the time, controversy was swirling around his then-new sound, and the storm would only grow fiercer in the years to come. Sonic Trance (2003) and Into the Blue (2008) had been attacked in some quarters for their funk grooves and electric keyboards. His next album, Bitches, emphasized dance grooves and amplification even more, and it featured more of Payton’s vocals than his trumpet playing. It was slated to be released by Concord Records in 2010, but the label decided not to put it out.
“The A&R guy I was working with at Concord thought it was brilliant,” Payton claims today. “He said it was a flagship project for the label’s move away from the traditional idea of jazz because this music wasn’t just R&B or just jazz. Several release dates were set and pushed back. Then they decided they weren’t going to release it at all. No formal reason was ever given.
“For now it’s sitting on the shelf. It’s been leaked on the Internet, though, and has taken on a life of its own. I think it’s unfortunate that they decided to deep-six it because people really love it. It has been suggested that I could buy it back and put it out myself, but just on principle, I refuse to pay a penny for it when their A&R guy sanctioned it every step of the way.”
Payton never raises his voice, but an edginess creeps in that hints at how angry he really is. He’s determined to keep pushing forward. In March, he debuted his new 21-musician ensemble, the Nicholas Payton Television Studio Orchestra, in six shows for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. It’s an unusual big band because Payton’s arrangements forego the usual wall- of-sound and steamroller swing in favor of more transparent music emphasizing a large ensemble’s wide spectrum of colors.
“I want to use the big band’s range and flexibility,” he says, “but I also want to retain a small group’s sense of spontaneity and solos. I don’t want the drummer to have to respond to every trumpet accent. I want it to sound like a lot of small combos in the same place that you can switch back and forth between. I try to give each person a melody that can stand on its own.”
Five members of the NPTSO (Payton, vocalist Johnaye Kendrick, keyboardist Lawrence Fields, bassist Robert Hurst and percussionist Rolando Guerro) joined drummer Karriem Riggins when they performed at Jazz Fest as the new Nicholas Payton SeXXXtet, and both bands are performing tunes from Payton’s controversial recent albums. Payton and Kendrick not only sing the vocals from the unreleased album but also the original lyrics for several tunes that were released as instrumentals on Into the Blue.
“Vocals are something I had been working towards for years,” Payton says. “I started writing tunes with lyrics in the late ‘90s when I was working with some New Orleans cats in my band, Time Machine. It was me, Chris Severn on bass, Adonis Rose on drums, Steve Masakowski on guitar, Peter Martin on keys, Kenyatta Simon on percussion, and Philip Manuel on vocals. None of those songs has ever been released, though one of them, ‘Freesia,’ was included on Bitches.
“Everyone acts as if songs are so different from instrumental tracks, but the only real difference is that there are words.”
Payton looks a bit like Louis Armstrong and can sound a whole lot like him when he chooses. Though they were born 72 years apart—Armstrong in 1901 and Payton in 1973—the two trumpeters are both New Orleans natives rooted in the city’s earliest jazz traditions. So it was inevitable that Payton would one day record an Armstrong tribute album.
When that project, Dear Louis, was released in 2001, it was such a critical and commercial success that Payton received a lot of advice, even pressure, to do more in the same vein. Instead he made Sonic Trance, a jazz album full of synths, samplers and other electronic instruments.
“Everybody said, ‘Oh, he’s selling out, doing this electronic music,’” Payton said in 2009. “But the truth is I could have made significantly more money with another Dear Louis. But after I completed that album, I knew I didn’t want to play from the perspective of my predecessors anymore. I felt I had done that. Sonic Trance was me breaking away from any idea of what people thought I should do—even what I thought I should do. When Kevin (Hays) started doubling on Fender Rhodes, we had the sound I wanted.”
The electric piano proved a key element, for its chiming, reverberating notes with their long decay were a key signature of ‘70s black music, the decade of Payton’s childhood, not just in jazz-rock fusion but also in R&B. “I think the Fender Rhodes sounds beautiful,” he says firmly. “It’s a very warm instrument and it’s electric. I like electricity. Electricity was essential to a lot of records I loved in the ‘70s: Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay, Milt Jackson’s Sunflower, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. That was the keyboard of the day.”
Sonic Trance proved divisive. While some reviews admired its echoes of the electric Davis, others responded as if Payton were committing treason to the Young Lions jazz orthodoxy of the ‘90s. Even those who admired the disc’s mesmerizing vibe were disappointed by its lack of memorable themes and emotional disclosure. The sales were respectable, but Payton lost his label when Warner Bros. shut down its jazz division.
“People either loved it or hated it,” Payton acknowledged. “There wasn’t much middle ground. I’d never gotten criticized like that before. It was almost personal, as if I’d done something to them. It was difficult because I’d never had my work received that way. Of course, some people didn’t like the earlier records because they thought they were too traditional, and then when I went the other way…” His voice trailed off. “I learned that you can’t please all the people all the time. You have to do what you want to do.”
For his next album, Into the Blue, Payton employed a similar process, leaning once again on electric keyboards, extra percussion and improvisations over vamps and grooves. But this time the vamps featured more catchy tunes. A key track was “The Crimson Touch,” an R&B-flavored number that brimmed with shimmery seduction. Payton had written lyrics for the piece, and even though he didn’t use them on the album’s instrumental version, he clearly had the words in mind when he picked up his horn. His trumpet seemed to be singing them in punctuated phrases as if promising pleasure to a lover. When Payton played 2009’s Jazz Fest, vocalist Kendrick took the Jazz Tent stage with a sheer black wrap covering a green mini-dress and sang the lyrics he wrote for “The Crimson Touch,” releasing her rounded, ripened vowels as if she were a human flugelhorn.
A few days later at Snug Harbor, Payton himself sang. Though he is not nearly the virtuoso on tenor voice that he is on trumpet—his vocal timbre is often less full and his intonation less precise—he is clearly committed to incorporating vocals into his music. The human voice, after all, is the most emotional of all instruments and was crucial to the music Payton grew up with. And, it’s a necessary vehicle for his growing interest in lyrics.
“Writing poetry is something that appeals to me,” he said. “The more I write poetry, the more I feel compelled to sing it. I understand the sensibility of the piece, so I feel compelled to express myself in that way. Why not? I’ve been singing longer than I’ve been playing trumpet. I can express myself through a lot of instruments: voice, keys, drums and the bass. Who knows? I might get interested in painting or acting in the future. I stay open to creativity however it manifests itself.”
When Payton prepared his compositions for Into the Blue, he recorded a demo of each tune, playing all the instruments himself—like Stevie Wonder or Prince. He was so pleased with the results that he used those actual demos as the basis for Bitches. He plays every instrument on the album including the Fender Rhodes, and sings every vocal except for six guest vocals, most notably one by Cassandra Wilson on “You Take Me Places I’ve Never Been Before” and by Esperanza Spalding on “Freesia.”
“I like the writing on his records so much,” Spalding said in 2009, “because it’s new music. It’s through-composed. Even the bass line, which plays this melodic counterpoint to the trumpet melody, is notated from beginning to end. The motifs are all singable, but they don’t repeat the way they would in a pop song. Meanwhile the drums are playing a shuffle.
“When you hear all those elements put together, it’s not like anything you’ve ever heard. It’s wild. Nicholas has got great ears with a great tone. What more can you ask for from any instrument? His tone is so perfect that he can go anywhere and turn on a dime. And the same freedom he brings to playing his horn is the way he wants us to play.”
His father, the late Walter Payton, gave his son a pocket trumpet at age four and turned him over to a trumpet teacher, Xavier University’s Diane Lyle, at age eight. But it wasn’t until age 11, when James Andrews invited Nicholas to join the All-Star Brass Band, one of the ensembles popping up like mushrooms all over the city in response to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, that the youngster got excited about music.
“I was used to the Young Tuxedo Brass Band playing in the traditional style,” the son remembers. “When I heard the Dirty Dozen I went, ‘Wow. This stuff can be really hot.’ It sounded like what I was hearing on the radio. Their horn lines were funky like Earth, Wind & Fire but combined with that New Orleans thing. But unlike a lot of bands that imitated them, they also had that bebop and free jazz.”
That combination of traditional jazz, new wave brass bands, funk and modern jazz has always propelled Payton, and even as he ventured into the fusion experiments of Sonic Trance, Into the Blue and Bitches, he never abandoned his traditional New Orleans roots.
“Even if they use electronic instruments, they’ve got that spirit,” his father insisted in 2009. “The new music has a place too, because the old music left a gap for it to walk into. The old music created a desire for music; it created people whose ears are opened and now say, ‘Okay, let’s see what else is out there.’ New Orleans can afford to have both kinds of music. It’s that kind of city. It looks forward and looks backward at the same time. We look both ways and make up our own mind.”