Nicholas Payton: "The trumpet chose me"
It was evident early on that New Orleans trumpeter Nicholas Payton had tremendous trumpet chops. After a stint with legendary drummer Elvin Jones, Payton inked a deal with Verve at the age of twenty and went on to release seven discs for the imprint, as well as a number of albums on other labels.
While the trumpeter is clearly at home in the jazz idiom, he's spent the past decade digging into electric jazz-funk sounds of the '60s and '70s with his XXX trio, which includes drummer Joe Dyson and bassist Vicente Archer. In advance of the act's date at Dazzle tonight, Thursday, February 20, and tomorrow night, Friday, February 21, we spoke with the multi-talented Payton about composing music, his rendering of Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain and creating #BAM (Black American Music) movement.
Westword: You're bringing your XXX band to Dazzle. What are you guys going for with this particular trio?
It's just music, to be honest. I don't know if I could say there's a particular direction in terms in terms of genre or style. I mean, one of the things about this particular trio is that it's actually kind of like a four-man trio in which I double on Rhodes as well as trumpet. I sing as well. It's not a thing for me as far as being a shtick, just to do it. It's a way to be more wholly involved in the music the whole time as opposed to taking solos and then standing on the side when I'm done. I can have more of a tangible role in the music from start to finish.
How long have you had that trio?
It's been something I've been doing since about 2006, off and on. I have other bands I work with as well. I have a big band. I have a sextet. I have different configurations that I work with. This it what we're doing in Denver this week.
You play quite a few different instrumentations. I read that Prince was an inspiration for you learning a bunch of different instruments.
How many instruments do you play?
I don't know a number, but enough to do an album by myself, which I actually have.
Yeah, Bitches, right?
You grew up in New Orleans in musical family and you started playing when you were quite young. What was it about the trumpet that really resonated with you early on?
I feel almost the trumpet chose me. I was so young. I started when I was 4. Something about it spoke to me more than other instruments. It could something to do with its role in New Orleans music as a lead instrument, and something about the sound. It has a very regal quality to it but it can be very beautiful and subtle as well. There's such a range of emotions that can be expressed on the instrument. That's what appeals to me. It's like a voice.
When you play other instruments do you get the same kind of feel that you get from trumpet or is playing other instruments a totally different thing for you?
I look them as if they're instruments. They're just conduits. The music comes from somewhere else, in the ether or wherever else. Whatever instrument I use is basically kind of like a microphone or a device to get whatever that idea is out to a listener or recorded. Even when I'm playing the trumpet I don't want just a trumpet sound when I'm playing the trumpet.
Sometimes I can be the drums or I can be the bass or I can be a whole symphony orchestra. I don't like to limit myself so whatever concepts or whatever inherent strengths or deficits any instrument may possess naturally. I like to have to supersede those things and to take the instrument beyond. It's perceived capability.
When you write stuff, do you write on the keys?
When it finally gets down to paper - if I put it on paper. I have some songs that I've never physically written out. I've composed in my head and then I teach it to the musicians without writing it. I don't really write music in that sense. For me, I have experiences and they sound like something, and I write a soundtrack to those experiences. I don't really write music anymore. I stopped writing music maybe over ten years ago.
For me, like I said, experiences and those things sound like something. It could be just in the form of a rhythm or a harmony or chord progressions or a melody or lyrics. So when I play a composition I'm not just playing some musical idea - a song. I'm giving that experience, almost like if it was a script that an actor is reliving a certain character or performing that character. It's the same thing when I write a composition.
It's a personal experience, either something I've experienced personally or it could how I imagine someone else experiencing something. But it's definitely always at this point for me some type of human experience. It's never just like a song, like, "Oh, I feel like writing a song today." It's always deeply rooted in something in the human experience, and I write a soundtrack to that and that's what I'm performing when I perform a composition.
Do you things ever come to visually?
Oh yeah. Mostly. It's never like a musical thing. It's always something else and then at some point that inspires.... I could be dreaming and I'll wake up at three o'clock in the morning and sometimes I'll just go to an instrument or jot something down on a piece of paper. Now with cell phones and voice memos, a lot of times it'll be years before I even get to a song because I'll hum into a tape recorder or something like that and put these ideas down.
The writing is the last part. Usually it's already composed. The writing out for me at this point is really only to have a way to document the tune and to transfer it to another artist so they can interpret it, and so my band can read the music. But other than that I would probably never even write it out.
I learned a long time ago that the pen is slower than the mind. So the time it would actually take me to write stuff out sometimes I might lose the inspiration. I might lose that melody. So it's easier for me to just record it so can flesh out the idea fully and then I go back and dictate the idea and write it down. I've lost ideas in the past trying to write it out. The thoughts come faster than the physical...
It's like if you were writing a novel or something like that and if you just spoke into the recorder and then wrote it out later then you can edit it and move it around and do whatever as you would anyway. But the time it takes it to actually write the stuff out a lot of times it hampers the creative flow of whatever idea that... So I like to get the idea documented as soon as possible because you never know. It could vanish.
I dig your Sketches of Spain record. I was kind of curious what inspired you to do that, and give a little different take on Miles's classic recording.
How it came about was actually I was scheduled in Switzerland to perform the first symphonic piece that I wrote called Black American Symphony. That's what I was originally contracted to do. And they had the idea that wanted to tie into a larger conceptual thing so they asked me, "Hey would you mind also performing alongside the symphony Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain." I said, "Of course." I had performed it before so I agreed to do it and that's how it came about. We wound up performing and recording both so I decided to release the Sketches of Spain.
I would imagine that album has to be pretty important to you.
Yeah. Well, it's a classic work, and a huge undertaking from a technical standpoint. Basically you have the horn to your face for forty minutes straight. So in a normal performance where you play a melody and take a solo and then you rest for a while... There's very little time to rest. From an endurance standpoint as a trumpet player it's kind of tantamount to running a long marathon.
I was also curious about your #BAM movement and what you were going for with that. How has that been going, and how has it been going since you wrote your original blog post about it a few years ago?
I guess the CliffNotes version is that I wrote a blog post explaining in detail my disdain for the word "jazz," which lead at some point for people to ask me, "Well, if you don't like 'jazz' what you call the music?" And I simply said, "Black American Music, which because we live in the age of the Internet and shorthand and acronyms, which eventually became #BAM. The #BAM movement basically has been my crusade to bring awareness that this music that has been so-called jazz that has inspired world popular culture and music and so forth that the black American community should be credited as such.
I think we've lost sight of that. People were not taught this in schools. And it's a communal expression first, and this is not to say that who can listen to it or who can play it. The music is for anybody to enjoy or perform or what have you. But like we do with Brazilian music or mariachi music, Afro-Cuban music or whatever... other cultural musics.
Black people have a cultural music as well. And all of it has the same root. It could be James Brown, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Marvin Gaye, Stan Getz, Bill Evans, no matter who we're talking about. This music comes from the black community and it's an important thing to recognize and remember because that's the roots of it.
If you don't recognize and acknowledge groups then the music becomes something else, and I see the music becoming something else. We can see by evidence of by what's happening in hip-hop, which is the latest thing that we all know in the black community. The stuff now masquerading as hip-hop has no rhythmic or cultural ties to the community. The inception of hip-hop, and what that music meant and the message from the culture and the people... the expression of the people has all been lost. Now it's turned into a commodity of the popular mainstream culture.
Did you have a goal in mind when you started this?
I can't say I have a goal. If I can, and I think I already have, if there has been a goal I can say is to enlighten people to be aware of this. I think what's obvious to some is not so obvious to a lot of people, as evidenced even by things that have happened so far like the recent media thing I touched on with them linking the death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman to jazz and black musicians who have been dead for over fifty years. It's like, this is exactly what I'm taking about -- the negative connotation of jazz and the vilifying of the African-American community. It's problematic, and it's still problematic.
The work I'm doing is not unlike what Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were trying to do fifty-some-odd years ago. It's unfortunate that we still, in this day and age, have to drive this point home, but for me, I'm a descendent of those kind of thinkers -- those types of philosophers -- to create justice for not only black Americans but for all people. As a black American, obviously, my priority is to my community first.
You said jazz died in 1959. Why that year in particular?
Well, I expound upon it in the piece but it had to do with a lot of the records that are still the best selling jazz recordings like Kind of Blue, Dave Brubeck's Time Out. They all happened in 1959. It was the apex of popularity of jazz music, which still hasn't been eclipsed so far and I think it never will. It's always going to be looking back to itself, which is problematic. It stagnates the growth and evolution.
What do think happened after 1959?
A long process of devaluing the music and retrogressive thinking that's caused the music to be stagnate. That's as far as the music could go under that moniker, under that banner of jazz. That's evidenced still day as the number one record is Kind of Blue.
Have you been working on anything new?
Yeah. I have like five albums in the can that I could release tomorrow as well as recording virtually every live performance that I've made for the last five or six years. So I have a wealth of material. I'm looking at releasing a project sometime this spring that's --- dare I categorize it - it's kind of a funky thing. It's very rooted in New Orleans. All original compositions. I'm trying to get out either spring or early summer.
Speaking of records, you started your own label. It seems like the way to go these days.
Yeah. The old model is obsolete. Now with the Internet and how easy it is to set up home studios, not only from a practical standpoint of recording but also marketing and so forth. I think it's just best for the artist to have that kind of autonomy and control of their product.
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