The Evolution of Nicholas Payton


“One of the first things I checked out heavily when I got serious about playing music was Weather Report’s Heavy Weather,” Payton says of his early influences.

(Photo: Dana Distortion)

There was a time, back in the mid-’90s, when trumpeter Nicholas Payton was being hyped as a Young Lion on the scene. His New Orleans birthplace lent credence to the notion that he might be the next link in the Crescent City’s rich trumpet lineage, one that spanned Buddy Bolden to Joe “King” Oliver to Freddie Keppard to Louis Armstrong, then decades later to Wynton Marsalis and Terence Blanchard. The fact that this hard-bop prodigy also bore a striking physical resemblance to “Pops,” as observers and scribes often noted, played right into that narrative.

As Los Angeles Times jazz critic Don Heckman wrote in a May 1, 2000, review of a Payton concert: “It was appropriate that Payton was leading a seven-piece ensemble in a program billed as ‘The Nicholas Payton Armstrong Centennial Celebration.’ In addition to his extraordinary mastery of the Armstrong trumpet style, he actually bears considerable physical resemblance to the great jazz innovator.” Though some, including the iconic 91-year-old trumpeter Doc Cheatham, maintained that Payton more favored King Oliver.

His appearance alongside Cheatham on a 1997 Verve album of jazz standards, recorded when Payton was 23, earned the rising star trumpeter a Best Solo Jazz Performance Grammy for “Stardust.” And as the elder statesman said of his mentee at the time: “He’s the greatest of the New Orleans-style players that I’ve ever heard. He’s pure, he’s not fooling around. He’s gonna scare all the trumpet players. I haven’t heard anybody like him since Louis Armstrong.”

That praise, along with Payton’s appearance on the 2001 Arkadia Jazz album The New Young Lions Of Jazz, further drove home the point. But Payton had other plans, as he would articulate in a 2012 blog post entitled, “Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore.”

Jazz died when cool stopped being hip.

Jazz was a limited idea to begin with.

Jazz is a label that was forced upon

the musicians.

The musicians should’ve never accepted

that idea.

Jazz ain’t shit.

I play Postmodern New Orleans music.

Jazz is incestuous.

Let it go.

Lazy listeners who bought the Young Lions hype may not have made it beyond 1995’s From This Moment On, 1996’s Gumbo Nouveau, 1997’s Doc Cheatham & Nicholas Payton and 1998’s Payton’s Place. But if they had gone along for the ride on the neo-bop burner’s ever-evolving trip through the next two decades, it might’ve explained how he got to Drip, his latest release for his Paytone Records.

There were plenty of hints along the way. As far back as 2001’s Dear Louis, his heartfelt paean to Pops, there were signs of Payton expanding beyond the Young Lions tag. That album not only featured his first-ever use on record of the Fender Rhodes electric piano (which he played himself on a radically re-imagined and reharmonized rendition of “On The Sunny Side Of The Street,” featuring Dianne Reeves on vocals), it also contained tweaked renditions of “Hello, Dolly,” “Potato Head Blues,” “Tiger Rag” and “Tight Like This” for 11-piece band.

With 2003’s Sonic Trance, Payton opened the floodgates, offering listeners a taste of his neo-soul sensibility on the title track and “Seance (Romantic Reprise)” while delving into an edgier, electric Miles Davis aesthetic on trippy, wah-wah-inflected trumpet numbers like “Velvet Handcuffs,” “Tantric,” his Afrobeat homage “Fela 1” and the sly-named “Cannabis Leaf Rag.”

But Payton continued pushing the envelope on 2011’s Bitches and a string of ambitious concept albums that followed, again, on Paytone (2013’s Numbers, 2014’s Letters and 2015’s Textures), revealing a renegade streak that placed him light-years beyond his Young Lions past. By 2020, when he released two quirky projects in the 
retro-soul Maestro Rhythm King (which had him playing all the instruments alongside a vintage drum machine; the kind formerly used by Sly Stone on 1971’s There’s A Riot Going On) and the experimental electronica outing Quarantined With Nick (fueled by politically charged sampled rants of looped dialogue from outraged pandemic witnesses) — Payton left behind that portion of his earlier audience that wished he had remained firmly entrenched in the Armstrong jazz legacy.

Instead, he keeps defying expectations. While stretching into more expansive electronic directions on Paytone, the trumpeter maintains an acoustic jazz presence on the Smoke Sessions label, releasing Relaxin’ With Nick in 2019, Smoke Sessions in 2021 (with bassist Ron Carter and tenor saxophonist George Coleman) and The Couch Sessions in 2022 (with bassist Buster Williams and drummer Lenny White, and featuring sampled testimony from the likes of Geri Allen, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter).

DownBeat spoke with Payton just after the occasion of his 50th birthday on Sept. 26, which was also the official release date for his retro, ’70s-sounding Drip (recorded in Atlanta with drummer Lil’ John Roberts and his band The Senators along with guests Robert Glasper, Patrice Rushen and Michael Franks).

Bill Milkowski: Those who haven’t been following your recent output may be surprised by the ’70s vibe that permeates Drip, particularly on tunes like “Big George,” “Black Is Beautiful” and “Gold Dust Black Magic.” But you’ve been alluding to that funk-soul-jazz direction since 1999’s Nick@Night, which contained your rendition of Ramsey Lewis’ “Sun Goddess,” his hit single and title track from his gold-selling 1974 album.

Payton: True. So it’s really nothing new. That was the era I grew up in. My first favorite song, which I used to ask my dad to put on repeat when I was like 3, was Grover Washington Jr.’s “Mister Magic.” So the sound of the Fender Rhodes electric piano has been crucial in my music since Sonic Trance ... actually before that. I wanted to use electronic instruments on Nick@Night but back then the labels were not yet open-minded, and the Young Lions thing was heavy. Playing acoustic straightahead and “suiting up” and that whole thing was still very prevalent, so they were leery of me taking that sharp direction, which forced me to be creative. So on Nick@Night I employed the celeste as a substitute for the Fender Rhodes on one song [“Faith (For Faith Evans)”], and then I had a harpsichord as a substitute for the clavinet on another [“Beyond The Stars”]. But Dear Louis is the first time I had a Fender Rhodes on a record, which I played on “On The Sunny Side Of The Street.”

Milkowski: Then on 2003’s Sonic Trance you employed all kinds of electronics — wah-wah on the trumpet, synths and samplers and various other effects. And that’s been part of your modus operandi for a while now. You may have gotten pigeonholed into a Young Lions thing early on, or even pressured into that, but it seems you’ve broken away from that decades ago.

Payton: Yeah, indeed.

Milkowski: It sounds like you came about your interest in ’70s music very organically.

Payton: Absolutely. One of the first things I checked out heavily when I got serious about playing music was Weather Report’s Heavy Weather. That’s my favorite Weather Report album. “Birdland” was a really big hit at that time. Herbie Hancock and Headhunters’ “Chameleon” was really big at that time. And I also got really into Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay. That was one of the first albums I really seriously started checking out and transcribing. So that aesthetic has always been prominent in my music, even when I was playing strictly acoustic. Even going back to Gumbo Nouveau [Verve, 1996], my arrangement of “When The Saints Go Marching” is like that. So that type of sound has always been central to the thing I do. Or even my very first album [From This Moment On [Verve, 1995], where I had vibraphones [Monte Croft] and guitar [Mark Whitfield]; it was very much going after a CTI/Milt Jackson Sunflower kind of thing. So, yeah, it’s always been very prevalent. With this new album, though, what I think sets it apart is that I tapped a little bit into more of a kind of smooth, urban/AC type of format. I think it’s the most in line with that type of studio-produced live type of sound that I’ve done. Whereas a lot of my other electronic albums have been more kind of free-form and a bit loose and experimental.

Milkowski: Like 2020’s Quarantined With Nick.

Payton: Well, yeah, that’s kind of way out there.

Milkowski: That was an adventurous and very politically charged experiment with Sasha Masakowski doing vocal loops and sampled loops and other electronics and Cliff Hines playing modular synth. And some of the looped dialogue was addressing the state of the pandemic and angry reactions to the stay-at-home mandate. It was pretty dark and real.

Payton: Exactly. We did that recording right before it became a formal city-wide lockdown [ordered New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell in March 2020]. We set up in my home studio on March 13th and 14th and recorded it, then released it two weeks later, over the weekend of March 28–29. So it was quite possibly the world’s first COVID quarantine album.

Milkowski: Some of the tunes from Drip conjure up memories of Roy Ayers’ Ubiquity, Ronnie Foster and Herbie Hancock’s more pop-inflected recordings from the late ’70s like Secrets, Sunlight and Feets, Don’t Fail Me Now.

Payton: And Man-Child. In fact, this new album was mixed in the studio where Herbie cut a lot of his earlier stuff — Sextant, Head Hunters and Thrust. The engineer I’ve been working with for the last two years [Otis McDonald] has studio C in what used to be Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco, but is now called Hyde Street Studio. That’s where Drip was done.

Milkowski: On Drip you’ve re-imagined some tunes you had previously recorded for Smoke Sessions. The opening track, “Big George,” was originally named for “George Coleman,” who appears on your swinging version from 2021’s Smoke Sessions. But on this new version from Drip, not only are you not playing any trumpet at all, the tune just hangs with that funk vibe. It never goes to a swing section. And instead of George Coleman’s killing tenor sax solo, the solo on the new version comes from electric guitarist Derek Scott. That’s really put a new suit of clothes on that tune.

Payton: Correct. I like the idea of revisiting compositions and bringing new light to something that I’d done years before. Wayne Shorter is a big inspiration for that, how he would revisit older material that maybe he did with an acoustic straightahead thing and then wrote a whole episodic type of thing for an electric ensemble. I think if the barebones of composition is there, if the melodic material is strong enough, you can do it any style. It doesn’t have to be one particular thing, even if you conceived it in one particular type of sound when you originally wrote it. The deal I’ve had with Smoke Sessions is that I’ll do the straightahead stuff for their label and not be competing with myself in terms of that. Then I save the more experimental or electronic stuff for Paytone Records. That’s not to say playing straightahead can’t be adventurous either, but just the aesthetic of playing more acoustic straightahead music, I do on their label since that’s kind of in their wheelhouse.

Milkowski: That ’70s vibe also comes across on “Black Is Beautiful,” which has a Stevie Wonder influence to it.

Payton: Absolutely, very heavy. I definitely love Stevie as well. Songs In The Key Of Life was another one of the first things that I recall hearing on repeat as a kid, as a 3-year-old. But that song “Black Is Beautiful” was originally recorded for an album which I started working on at the top of the pandemic with Marcus Gilmore and Kwame S. Brathwaite, the son of the great photographer and activist Kwame Brathwaite, who was very crucial in the Black is Beautiful movement of the ’60s. He took a lot of iconic photos during that time, including a couple for Blue Note album covers like Lou Donaldson’s Gravy Train and The Natural Soul and Big John Patton’s Oh Baby! So through Kwame S. Brathwaite, we had access to his father’s archives. We’d pick a Kwame Brathwaite photo and then write a composition or piece of music that sounds like the photo. It started as an experiment with us bouncing tracks back and forth, sending files online since people were still quarantined. Then once stuff started opening up, we began inviting guests to appear on the recording. So far we’ve had Joel Ross on a tune and Brandee Younger is on “Black Is Beautiful,” which is a piece in three sections. We also had a string section on some stuff, and the matriarch of the Brathwaite family appears via voice samples of her talking about the whole Black is Beautiful movement — what it meant in the ’60s and what it means now in terms of today’s outlook on Blackness and its importance. So that project should be coming out sometime soon.

Milkowski: That idea of using voice samples was a significant aspect of your 2022 Smoke Sessions album The Couch Sessions, where we hear spoken word testimony from Geri Allen, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Lenny White and others.

Payton: Yeah, it’s something I started doing on my Afro-Caribbean Mixtape project, which is the first overtly political album that I’ve done that espouses a lot of the things I’ve written about but hadn’t so much been a part of my music, until then. Initially, I had a DJ on that project to generate the voices. Now I use several apps on my phone to trigger samples, so I can do it myself in a live gig situation.

Milkowski: “The Backwards Step,” which features Robert Glasper on Fender Rhodes, is another one that you had previously recorded. You originally did that tune on your 2013 album #BAM: Live At Bohemian Caverns.

Payton: No, that was actually the second time I recorded it. The first time was on my Into The Blue album, which came out [on Nonesuch] in 2008. And it’s become probably my most played and performed tune of all the compositions I’ve written. That’s one that has more or less become a standard on the scene.

Milkowski: That tune triggered memories of Angela Bofill, who was very popular in the ’70s and got a lot of crossover radio play and attention from her 1978 album Angie.

Payton: Oh, love her! Yeah, that album was played often. That and her second album, called Angel Of The Night. My mom was a big fan of that album so I grew up hearing it. “I Try” is one of my favorite tunes ever. Those albums were always a part of the sound of my childhood.

Milkowski: You scored a nice coup on the new album with that vocal duet between Patrice Rushen and Michael Franks on “Visible Light.”

Payton: Yeah, their first, actually. So I was proud to be able to put that together. Patrice is also playing Rhodes on that tune, and she’s still at the top of her game. I’ve been loving Patrice since Straight From The Heart [Rushen’s 1982 album on Elektra].

Milkowski: What’s the story behind you collaborating with Lil’ John Roberts and his band on Drip?

Payton: What happened was, I had a gig in Atlanta with his group and we did two nights at this club called The Velvet Note. This was a day or so before Hurricane Ida was due to hit New Orleans. And since I was already gone, it didn’t make any sense to go back home, so I just stayed in Atlanta. And the gig had such a good vibe that I decided, “Why don’t we just go in the studio?” I had some time to kill anyway, so we did two dates in the studio and that was the genesis of the project.

Milkowski: Meanwhile, you’ve appeared as a guest soloist on other people’s records recently, including Joshua Redman’s where are we, Al Foster’s Reflections and Terri Lynne Carrington’s New Standards, Vol. 1. You even played on Common’s album Fancy Free Future Love. So it seems like you have a lot of avenues for expression these days.

Payton: Definitely. To me, that’s always been the goal: to be free to do whatever it is I wanted to do musically or otherwise. It’s kind of the point of what attracted me to music in the first place. My favorite artists didn’t just do one type of thing. And the older I get, the more motivated I am. The closer I get to the finish line of being on this planet, I tend to be more motivated to try to do more stuff before I can’t do it anymore. The impetus of me starting my own label, too, was not wanting to adhere to someone else’s schedule of when I put an album out; that if I want to release five projects in a year, I can do that. DB

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