Nicholas Payton Looks to Direct the Culture

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During his concerts, Nicholas Payton frequently plays keyboards and trumpet simultaneously.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

Nicholas Payton is very much a self-starter. The 46-year-old New Orleans native—known as much for the currency of his social criticism as for his fluency on trumpet and keyboards—needs little encouragement to spin a bracing narrative.

Little wonder, then, that when Payton and fellow trumpeter Marquis Hill, 32, met for a DownBeat interview on a November afternoon at the New York club Smoke, Hill, the designated questioner, was not unduly burdened. The Chicago native’s own musical star is rising rapidly—likewise, his reputation for mixing art and activism—and he counts Payton as an important influence. Hill was judicious and polite as his elder expounded on a range of topics. All of Payton’s comments were delivered in the understated but uncompromising tone for which he’s become known.

So, too, was the music Payton made later that evening on the bandstand at Smoke, playing a coolly vibrant set that complemented and clarified points he made during the interview.

Drawing on several of his albums, including his new trio release, Relaxin’ With Nick—recorded live at Smoke and released in October on the venue’s associated label, Smoke Sessions—Payton kicked up a quiet storm. Backed by the redoubtable team of Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington on drums—both of whom appear on the new disc—he moved seamlessly from Fender Rhodes to acoustic piano and back, at times comping for himself with his left hand while his right fingered the trumpet, which in turn was propped up by a kind of stabilizing rod.

Opening the set with the new album’s tasty title tune, Payton unfurled nearly six minutes of tightly wound swing from the confines of the acoustic piano before opening things up with a switch to trumpet and Rhodes. In the process, he displayed brilliant musical dexterity and made a forceful argument for the relevance of mainstream jazz. Not that he would be happy with that term. Halfway through the set, he slipped into hip-hop mode with another tune from the new album, “Jazz Is A Four-Letter Word.” Built around his hypnotic repetition of the title and a digitally altered spoken-word excerpt from a 1993 recording of a Max Roach interview, the tune constituted a devastating critique.

Combined with the interview, the performance suggested an artist still repudiating early attempts to pigeonhole him as the reincarnation of Louis Armstrong—a figure he dutifully reveres but one whose legacy he has fought, as a matter of labeling, to be liberated from. Liberation, in fact, is a subtext of his oeuvre generally—not least, liberation from what he characterizes as “so-called jazz,” the way the genre name has been applied and what it means. Those concerns, among others, echo throughout the two-disc, 15-track Relaxin’ With Nick. —Phillip Lutz

Marquis Hill: Could you speak about the track listing and your motivation behind picking these particular tunes?

Nicholas Payton: There are a lot of originals, and a couple of new songs that made their debut, such as the title track, “Relaxin’ With Nick.” Also “1983,” which is actually a part of a larger project where I have songs dedicated to a particular year in each decade of the 20th century. Being a child of the ’80s, that’s really my favorite era of music. It’s a happy feeling and like the last time when it was cool to be a bit corny. I feel like everything has become so serious and a bit cynical—you have to be hard and a gangster, just like the whole idea of being happy and having fun has become sort of lame and passé.

Have you ever felt pressure from labels or critics during your career to produce a certain type of music?

Yeah, I think of my first record deal when I was on Verve in the ’90s. I was kind of labeled—I feel unfairly—as a traditionalist, and was branded as the second coming of Louis Armstrong, which in some sense felt like an honor because obviously he’s the father of us all. He’s the first pop star, he’s the one who really was like the first virtuosic soloist in this whole black American idiom of music, and really set the standard for everything happens—to this day. So, to be looked at in the light of someone that great and powerful, who had such an original style, an original sound, was such a trendsetter, was cool. But also to be pigeonholed at the same time, as this idea that this is only what I do.

I was often seeking to break out of that idea, and one of the first projects where I felt like I really tried to embrace a different sound and aesthetic was Nick@Night, which came out in ’99. I was favoring a lot of other keyboard instruments outside of just the piano because I was looking for a different sound. I know that you do a lot of that in your music, too—a lot of it is pianoless.

So, when I was doing Nick@Night, ... I was writing more longer-form compositions at the time. And that was really the end of me writing more longer-form compositions, because right after that is where I began to write vamps. So, this was like the hilt of me writing my way out of having to write so much—almost a way of [acknowledging], “OK, I’ve done that.” And with Dear Louis right after that, too, arranging and just going really big in terms of all the possible things and sections and interludes and whatever. That was sort of my farewell to my idea—or people’s idea—of jazz at that time. I wanted to make music of a man of my age and a music more inclusive of things I grew up listening to.

How did you link up with Peter and Kenny for this record? Talk about their impact on your personal growth.

They’re my elders by a decade or so, so I grew up listening to them and a lot of their work throughout the ’80s with people like Mulgrew Miller, or Kenny with Betty Carter. Seeing Kenny’s work with her, working together with [Peter] and Bill Charlap—they’re like the A-team, first-call rhythm section in New York and have been for the last 30 years. But I feel like they’re not given their due. I really wanted to highlight them, and have Kenny play on funk grooves, and play with a sampler and different things to highlight the things that I know they can do.

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