Trumpeter Nicholas Payton ready to jam in Aspen
ASPEN – Nicholas Payton’s next album, with recording completed and slated for a January release, is titled “Bitches.” At this point, post-Biggie and with gangsta rap a faint and even quaint part of music history, the title is barely capable of holding shock value. Perhaps the only shocking thing about it is that the album comes from a New Orleans jazz artist, not an L.A. rapper.A far bigger surprise than the title is the substance of “Bitches.” The 36-year-old Payton, who has been known mostly as a straight-ahead acoustic player, has ventured outside of traditionalist boundaries before – most emphatically on “Sonic Trance,” a 2003 album that employs samplers, electronics and studio effects to create linear, groove-oriented fusion music. But with “Bitches,” Payton takes a leap outside of jazz’s comfort zones, and outside his own comfort zone as well.”‘Bitches,’ if I dare to categorize it, will be in the r&b, soul vein,” Payton said. An even bigger jump than the stylistic one is in Payton’s role in the music, which is nearly total. Payton plays all of the instruments, from his familiar trumpet to keyboards, drums and bass. He composed each song – including the lyrics, a new field for him. And while the guest vocalists are numerous – Cassandra Wilson, Esperanza Spalding, Maxwell, N’dambi – Payton adds his voice to every track.It is a statement of Payton’s versatility. Growing up, he loved funk, hip-hop and New Orleans styles, and played a variety of instruments before focusing on the trumpet. But it is just as much an indicator of Payton’s relationship with jazz history. He has already proved, over a career that is two decades and nine albums long, that he can comfortably embrace the tradition of straight-ahead, acoustic jazz. With “Bitches,” he shows how completely he can play outside those bounds.”Some musicians say knowing a lot about the history takes away from your originality. I don’t believe in that. The original voice – that’s in you the whole time,” Payton, wearing a black hat and a black shirt with a fleur-de-lis, symbol of his native New Orleans, said one day this week, sitting in the lobby of Snowmass Village’s Silvertree Hotel. “It’s like in other fields – medicine, chemistry. It’s expected, if you’re a doctor, that you know the history of medicine. The masters, to me, have made it easier for us. They’ve laid the groundwork, trying out things that work and don’t work. I use that legacy to build on higher ground, not as something that weighs me down.”Payton launched his career, at the age of 18, with the debut album, “From This Moment.” The albums that followed – “Gumbo Nouveau,” which included traditional songs from New Orleans; and “Fingerpainting,” a tribute to Herbie Hancock and a collaboration with bassist Christian McBride and guitarist Mark Whitfield – revealed a tendency to look backward for material and inspiration. “It was acoustic. That put the stamp on me as a traditionalist,” Payton said. And that mark became only more pronounced with the 1997 album “Doc Cheatham & Nicholas Payton,” which paired the youngster with a trumpeter nearly 70 years his senior (and earned Payton a Grammy, for best instrumental solo).But Payton, whose father is a professional bassist and sousaphonist who played in the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, says this stage was necessary to find his footing. “I was still in the process of solidifying who I was – not only as a musician, but as a person,” said Payton, who appears in the JAS Academy Jam Session, along with fellow JAS Academy instructors Christian McBride and Loren Schoenberg, Friday at 10 p.m. at the Downstairs at the Nell venue. He is also scheduled to play Thursday at 8 p.m., with his own quintet.At the same time, he was feeling his way around his own voice. The template for those early records may have been acoustic, and the songs from past eras, but Payton often showed an original, modern way of expressing himself. His 2001 album, “Dear Louis,” was a tribute to Louis Armstrong – but the opening horn parts on the opening number, “Potato Head Blues,” most certainly did not come from 1927, the year Armstrong recorded the tune. “I was hearing textures, and other things. My first record had vibes and electric guitar,” Payton said. “But before you can break or extend the history of something, you have to understand what it is. You can’t come out of the gate and not acknowledge the forefathers.”But the records were different; they were modern. ‘Gumbo Nouveau’ – I did a lot of old New Orleans songs, but did them very differently. That traditionalist stamp got unfairly placed on me. I wasn’t trying to hearken back to anything, just trying to bring new life to it and place it in a modern context.”That modus operandi became explicit on “Sonic Trance.” After a big handful of acoustic recordings, “Sonic Trance,” with its samples, lack of formal structure, and Payton’s trumpet sound altered through various effects, sounded like a break into new territory.”‘Sonic Trance’ was just the first record in which I made a conscious attempt to include all these musics in an obvious way. It was a heavy, percussive, primal thing – electronics, Fender Rhodes, as well as using the studio as part of my equipment,” he said. “Before that it was more subtle.”••••”Sonic Trance” was a throwback in its own way, strongly connected to Miles Davis’ experiments with form and sound in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but updating Davis’ style of fusion with post-hip-hop techniques.”Bitches,” too, has a tie to the late trumpet pioneer. The title is an echo of Davis’ “Bitches Brew,” the landmark 1970 album that turned the jazz world onto electric instruments and compositions that didn’t repeat themes – or, for that matter, have chord progressions.Payton had Davis’ album in mind while making “Bitches,” he said, “because this is such a departure for me. Like ‘Bitches Brew’ was for Miles. It’s a similar sharp turn in my musical career.” (As for the provocative nature of the title, Payton says, “I figure if Miles can do ‘Bitches Brew,’ then 40 years later I can do just ‘Bitches.'”)”Bitches” holds the promise of being an even more original expression than “Sonic Trance” not just because of the stylistic turn, but where the songs come from. The album, Payton says, is autobiographical, a reflection on his marriage, which began in 2003, and his divorce, about to be finalized. To create the album, Payton didn’t look back on jazz history, but at his own history, and into his heart.”It’s such a personal record,” he said, “and it shows all facets of a relationship, from bliss to heartbreak. But it’s not misogynistic – it’s a love record, in an adult way. It captures the depth of feeling when you’re in love. Kind of like Marvin Gaye’s “Here, My Dear” – not stylistically, but how it’s honest and true to life.”The album began to take life when Payton began planning his “Into the Blue” album, which was released in 2008. For that album, Payton wanted his bandmates not only to learn the songs, but to get a feel for the generally somber mood of the album. So he made demos, on which he played all the instruments. The tunes that didn’t make it onto “Into the Blue” became songs for “Bitches.””I didn’t really know what this one would be,” Payton said of “Bitches.” “But I had a bunch of songs that were love songs; they were all in the same vein. I said, ‘OK, this experience with my marriage made me write a lot of these kinds of songs.”Payton had recorded his voice in small doses on past projects, but he has been working heavily on his vocals for the past few years. Only recently did he feel ready to do an album centered on his voice.”Bitches,” Payton believes, will help round out his musical profile. It is a multi-chapter tale, still in progress, that includes the young jazz player immersing himself in the history of his music; the emerging artist playing around with original thoughts; and the experimentalist, stepping confidently into other arenas.”My records are my autobiography. As they’ve moved along, I’ve moved along. They tell my story,” Payton said. “At the end of the day, if someone listens to my records from the first to the last, that would sort of be an album of sorts, too. An album of my story.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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