Unless someone is extremely well-versed in Nicholas Payton’s style on keyboards, it would probably be difficult to identify him as the leader on his latest disc, Letters.
Of course Payton, who first rose to fame as a jazz trumpeter, is renowned as a musical and instrumental chameleon and people have gotten used to seeing him with his horn perched on a stand atop his Fender Rhodes.
On last year’s release, the funk and groove heavy Numbers, his instrument of choice was the Rhodes. He blew trumpet only once during the album. Fans of his horn appreciated his 2013 album, Sketches of Spain, an interpretation of Miles Davis’ and Gil Evans’ masterpiece, on which his trumpet was heard during 90 percent of the 40-minute suite.
That brings us back to Letters, a two-disc release on Payton’s Paytone Records label. This time out, Payton’s primary instruments are acoustic piano and organ as he leads an acoustic trio with longtime bassist Vincente Archer and drummer Bill Stewart. Here he changes course again, digging into straight-up jazz—ballads, hard-swinging numbers, a bit of outside and a touch of funk. Payton blows trumpet on just one cut on CD A and a couple of more times on CD B.
That said, Payton can be thoroughly enjoyed for his talents as a thoughtful and dynamic keyboardist. Sweet and lovely can best describe his approach to a ballad as Vicente’s earthy bass and the light swish of Stewart’s brushes on snare and cymbals complement the mood.
That Payton remains old-school—that’s when he’s not very, very new school—comes out when à la many jazz veterans he throws in a familiar quote. “N for the Piano Players” begins quietly contemplative and then, on acoustic piano he references Ellington’s signature “A Train.” That’s about when the tune really gets going with one more quote to come: “Sleigh Ride.”
Stewart hits the drums hard to start “T for Wilson Turbinton” before Payton’s entrance on organ. There’s something so suitably New Orleans in this tune’s funky flavor that stands in remembrance of Willie Tee’s keyboard sound. It’s a treat to hear Payton work out on organ, an opportunity that’s very rare outside of the recording studio. Yeah!
Payton’s trumpet isn’t really missed until we hear it on cuts like “Q for Quincy Jones.” It’s a swinging, modern jazz number with Payton’s pure high notes and slurs setting it way above the average.
On Letters, Nicholas Payton serves up an alphabet soup with fully developed flavors and tasty surprises. It’s exemplary of the great musician that he is.