One of the many great things about Nicholas Payton is that he does not limit himself in his musical pursuits. Recently he has been heard onstage and on record with Dr. John’s Spirit of Louis Armstrong band, and he did several gigs at the Maple Leaf as a part of the Thursday Johnny Vidacovich trio.
His recording career is full of stellar records across the musical spectrum. From his fantastic revamp of New Orleans classics Gumbo Nouveau (check out his version of “St. James Infirmary”) to his Grammy-winning traditional style teaming with Doc Cheatham, to the wild space funk of Sonic Trance, the beautiful playing of Sketches of Spain, and the more rhythm and blues oriented session of Numbers, Nicholas Payton is one of the best musical artists out there. And he is direct and to the point as he describes what he does.
He states, “I don’t play jazz. I’m not limited to genre. It’s all Black Cultural Expression, so I can call upon any of it at any time, be it swing or straight ahead, funk, the New Orleans thing, street beats, blues—these are all to me a color palate, like a 64 box of Crayola. I can use any and all of them in combination at my disposal to make the music. Sometimes there is a groove in mind, but the idea is to hire people who can bring their own voice to it.” Payton says his current trio is locked in with him.
He explains, “Right now I’m touring with Vincente Archer on bass and Bill Stewart on drums and I’m playing keyboard and trumpet. Vincente and Bill hook up really well. They are very simpatico on music, what music they like, and what they have been influenced by. We all have similar frames of reference. When I go in a certain direction, they get it, and I don’t have to worry that they’ll know what to do. It gave me the creative latitude to go where I want to go because I know they understand where I’m going. I may or may not dictate a groove. Sometimes I hear something specific. Other times I want the drummer to take it. The music dictates that. There are certain codes in the music, and it dictates that. Either people get it or not. For me, that’s the beauty of hiring certain cats who get it. I don’t want to do a helluva lot of talking.” The music he plays reflects this. It moves in all sorts of directions depending on the venue and the moods of the players and audience. It is very exciting in that way and improvisatory in the manner that jazz should be even as it goes beyond the parameters of what most people consider jazz. It is music first, plain and simple. Payton calls it BAM, or Black American Music, which is a sentiment shared by many of the great musicians before him. Max Roach and Duke Ellington had issues with the term jazz. The Art Ensemble of Chicago called it “Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future.”
Always known for his independence, Payton started his own record label and released his first record on it in 2013. Numbers, Sketches of Spain, and Live at the Bohemian Caverns have all come out on the Paytone label. “I got tired of having to develop a sales pitch for some board or A&R guy. I work hard, and I should be able to do what I want to do without having somebody else green light it. For all the stuff I talk about Black autonomy and control over the music, it seems like the way to go. I’ve outgrown the other thing, where I have to ask someone to do something. It’s passé for me.”
Hand in hand with Payton’s independence is his knowledge and grounding in the tradition. His father Walter was a legendary bass player and music instructor whose bass lines graced much of the 1960s New Orleans rhythm and blues hits and 21st century Preservation Hall jams. The heroes of New Orleans music hung out at his house when he was a little kid. Online he has had in-depth Twitter conversations about everything from the compositional and rhythmic evolution of the second Miles Davis Quintet to recent jazz albums rooted in the blues.
However, he is totally uninterested in repeating the past.
“If people thought the way they did 100 years ago, then we wouldn’t have any of the great music we have today. That’s part of what made musicians like Louis Armstrong so fresh and revolutionary, it was some wild and revolutionary music at the time. It was very avant-garde, very cutting edge. No one had ever heard the trumpet played that way before. So if we as artists aren’t allowed to express our voices to their full potential like the masters who gave us this music have, then how is the music supposed to move forward? Obviously it’s contingent for the artists to have done their homework so they’ve earned the right to extend the tradition. It’s not something that is entitled. You must spent the time learning in tutelage under the masters and being linked to the ancestry to earn the right to be in the position to say you are in that lineage. But once you are, then I think you have the freedom to express that in whatever way within that tradition, because it’s going to be in that no matter what you do.”