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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the April 9, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Nicholas Payton and his Trumpet Trance
A few years ago, the jazz and folk music impresario
George Wein, whose memoirs "Myself Among Others" will
be published this spring, raved to me about a young trumpet player
from New Orleans. He was recalling his own personal highlights from
the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, held each April
in the Crescent City and which his company produces. The musician
he described as "just fabulous," was Nicholas Payton, then
in his early 20s.
Payton is featured in a jazz concert, Saturday, April 12, at Princeton’s
handsome Richardson Auditorium. Tickets are $17 to $26, but only $2
students from any school or college, with I.D.
Payton has recorded several albums of traditional, blues-based jazz
for Verve Records, including the critically-hailed "Doc Cheatham,
Nicholas Payton" in 1997. But his upcoming Warner Brothers debut,
to be released this fall, is something of a departure.
Payton and his new group, Sonic Trance, recently made their debut
at New York’s Birdland on West 44th Street, the city’s most acoustically
correct jazz room. The group incorporates a contemporary jazz touch
into its playing, featuring Tim Warfield on saxophones, Danny Fadownick
on a huge variety of percussion instruments, Vincente Archer on bass,
Kevin Hayes on piano and keyboards, and fellow Crescent City native
Adonis Rose on drums.
The new album "is quite a departure from the Doc Cheatham record,
but it’s very spontaneous and the musicians are all given the freedom
to express themselves throughout the record," cautions Payton.
" I made an effort to incorporate a lot of things I was influenced
by, including hip-hop and classic R&B artists."
Interestingly, Payton says the Beatles’ now classic rock record, "Sergeant
Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band," was a big influence on how
he put the album together.
"I wanted to create a record that could pretty much only be done
in the studio, to utilize all the great technological advances that
have been made in recording," he says. "A lot of jazz records
have become boring in recent years because all the guys do is get
into the studio and set up mikes and try to synthesize something they
do on the bandstand."
Payton argues these kinds of jazz albums can be disappointing
because they don’t have that live communication — which sometimes
inspires great solos — between the band and the audience.
"My whole concept was to exploit the fact that we were in the
studio and to do a lot of wild and crazy things that we could only
get away with in the recording studio. So we incorporated a lot of
electronic instruments, but we do it tastefully, nothing too gimmicky
or poppy, just something that would reflect more of the music that
I grew up with," he explains.
Payton, 29, is the son of Walter Payton, a well-known jazz bassist
on the Crescent City scene and a piano-playing mother, formerly an
operatic singer. He follows in the footsteps of a mile-long line of
tradition-based jazz trumpet players from New Orleans: Wynton Marsalis,
Al Hirt, Louis Armstrong, and Buddy Bolden to name a few. Asked what
it was like being raised by musician parents, and if it was possible
he could have become a zoologist, Payton says yes, that would have
been possible. He lives in New Orleans’ Uptown neighborhood, not far
from the Audubon Zoo, he jokes. "My parents would have supported
me in whatever I decided to do," he says, "but I came into
music through love and was never forced to be a musician. I continue
playing jazz music first and foremost because I love to do it."
Payton began playing trumpet on his own as a four-year-old, after
asking his father to get him one. He began accompanying his father
to shows at clubs as a youngster, and at these shows, he heard many
great trumpet players.
"Being at a young impressionable age and New Orleans being such
a great trumpet town, I had a chance to hear some great trumpeters
like Wendell Brunius, Leroy Jones, Clyde Kerr Jr., and the late great
Teddy Riley. I even remember seeing Wynton Marsalis when he was in
high school, when he had a huge Afro," he recalls.
"I got to hear a bunch of people play trumpet in a town that has
been noted for trumpet players since Buddy Bolden. For me, trumpet
fit my personality. It suited my voice. You’re able to express a wide
range of emotions on that instrument," he says.
While Payton readily admits he didn’t know at age four that he
wanted it to be a career endeavor, he does recall hearing a Miles
Davis quartet album in his parents’ record collection as an 11-year-old.
"I loved jazz, but listening to jazz was never something I initiated,
it was always environmental," he says, "but with the opening
notes of that record, even though I’d been around music all of my
life, I knew that I wanted to play jazz and be a trumpeter."
Did the young Payton know the potential pitfalls and ups and downs
such a career choice might entail? "Yes, I knew that from watching
my dad having a hard time getting gigs," he says. Payton began
performing publicly at age 10. "Even as an 11-year-old, I would
often make more money from playing on the streets than my dad would
"I would do everything from jazz funerals to weddings to
bar mitzvahs to playing on the street for tips," he recalls, adding,
"you can’t make a living in New Orleans being a genre-oriented
musician. A lot of the guys my father played with in jazz bands were
schoolteachers during the day and they would play gigs at night and
Payton attended New Orleans’ High School for the Creative Arts
and studied there with Clyde Kerr Jr. Later, in one semester at the
University of New Orleans, he studied with piano player Ellis Marsalis,
the father of Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo, and Jason, a quartet of
now-famous jazz musicians.
Applicants to the Creative Arts high school had
to audition to get in and pass a variety of skills tests. "There
were some students who came there who were talented in their respective
fields, and there were some kids there who really weren’t talented
at all, but they had a lot of drive and ambition. Those who weren’t
motivated got the boot."
Of his time studying with the elder Marsalis he says he learned more
from the maestro by showing up at his gigs at Snug Harbor, a French
Quarter jazz club, than he did in the classroom.
"He would let me sit in. The thing about Ellis is he challenges
you to be able to teach yourself. That’s the key to jazz. Only you
can know how you want to sound. A good teacher will facilitate the
development of your own style," Payton says, and that’s exactly
what the elder Marsalis did.
Payton’s college career was interrupted after his first semester by
the chance to go on the road with legendary jazz drummer Elvin Jones.
"I had been on the road with Marcus Roberts and some other
people, but I couldn’t be fully committed to any type of work while
still being in school, so spending two years on the road with Elvin
Jones was a big break for me," he recalls.
Of Jones, who has recorded with everyone from John Coltrane to
Duke Ellington to Allen Ginsberg, he says, "I’ve never played
with any musician who played with such command and sheer force on
any instrument. He has such mastery, but he’s not overbearing. He’s
a very sensitive musician and he’s always listening to the ensemble," he says.
"I remember before I got in his band I was very nervous. I thought,
`This guy has played with John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Wardell Gray,
Duke Ellington — so many musicians I loved and respected. What
does he want me in the band for?’ There were many people he could
have chosen, but he took an active interest in developing young talent,
and there was no real reason for him to do that, other than to see
a young musician continue this tradition."
Asked to discuss the importance of the blues form in jazz, something
everyone in the Marsalis family learned about from father Ellis, Payton
simply says: "Blues is fundamental to all American music, period.
Folk music, pop music, R&B, everything from Britney Spears to Wynton
Payton says he’s not sure if blues is something that can be taught,
when commenting on college-educated jazz players who don’t know the
blues. But he knows the form is universal and cross-cultural. "It’s
a feeling, a certain type of pathos that comes with just living life.
It’s universal. Different cultures have different forms of blues.
If I’m in Mexico, it might be mariachi, if I’m in England, it might
be something else, or in India it would be ragas, there are certain
tones that are in between pitches that they use to express the whole
range of human emotions. It’s important as a form and as an expression,
and in New Orleans, it’s just accepted that when you play jazz, blues
will be a part of that," he explains. "To me, jazz without
the blues is something else."
While Payton’s forthcoming release with Sonic Trance may disappoint
some "moldy fig" types who are used to Payton’s more traditional,
blues-based stylings, the album, and his supporting live shows, push
the music in new directions. At Birdland recently, his percussion
section used a huge assortment of instruments, including bells, congas,
chimes, gourds, beads, and maracas, while his keyboardist experimented
with a phase-shifter while alternating between organ and a conventional
"The `Sonic Trance’ record is very different from what I’ve done
in the past, so if people are looking for me to continue what I’ve
been doing in the past, I’m not at that place anymore. I’m not leaving
the roots of jazz, I just want to expand, and embrace the feeling
of now in my music," he says. After all, he argues, what’s great
about Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, "is
not only the achievements they made in music but their social relevancy
for the time. Their music encapsulated the meaning and the feeling
of the period in which they lived."
"I like to look at this new group and new album as an advancement,
an evolution, a step forward."
Concerts , Richardson Auditorium, 609-258-5000. Jazz with Nicholas
Payton and his new group. $17 to $26; all students $2. Saturday,
April 12, 8 p.m.
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