Nicholas Payton Hates the Word "Jazz"

Nicholas Payton and The Light Beings.
Nicholas Payton and The Light Beings. Brandon Baker
While he grew up in the Big Easy and plays a mean trumpet, among other instruments, Nicholas Payton doesn't care for the idea of genres — particularly "jazz."

In a new project, Nicholas Payton and the Light Beings join forces with an all-star cast of New Orleans-based musicians. There's drummer Robert "Sput" Searight (Snarky Puppy, Erykah Badu, Ghost-Note), bassist Dwayne Thomas Jr., who also goes by MonoNeon (Prince and Ghost-Note), and synthesizer player Cliff "Klyph" Hines.

The talented collective runs in a spiritual sonic direction squarely rooted in black musical traditions from the United States. The group's second outing ever, following its acclaimed debut last year at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, takes place in Colorado Springs this Saturday.

Westword spoke with Payton to find out what to expect.

Westword: How did the Light Beings fall into place?

Nicholas Payton: I sat in with Sput and MonoNeon while sitting in with Terrace Martin in 2018 at Jazz Fest in New Orleans, and we had an instant synergy and connection, so I hired them to be in my group the very next year for Jazz Fest and added Cliff on modular synth. I really dug the futuristic yet primal sounds that he's able to conjure. And we also included John Maestas, another guitarist who has some nice effects and creates beautiful sonic landscapes on his guitar. Cliff also plays guitar.

It all came together to create this sound that was indicative of the ideas I've had about transcending humanity to become more a part of universal energy as consciousness, hence the title Light Beings. So that's the musical representation.

The physical manifestation presented itself in the form of a dancer, Trina Bordere, who I went to school with. She was sort of the visual interpretation of the energy of the group. So that is the Light Beings.

Do you put together a new group for Jazz Fest every year?

Yeah, every year I kind of debut a new project. That's been the pattern for the last several years, and then usually an album comes out of it.

Did you grow up in New Orleans?

Yeah — born and raised.

Do you play a lot around the city?

Not really. I'm usually out touring or in the studio. 

I saw that you also write and discuss social issues and politics and so forth...

Yeah some of my views are not necessarily the most popular, but that's okay. It's part of being an artist.

Do you consider yourself to be part of the jazz tradition?

Not really. I'm vehemently anti-jazz, actually. I find the word "jazz" to be a derogatory and outdated term. My preferred terminology for my music is black American music, which is all-encompassing and genre-free. That's inclusive of swing, soul, be-bop, blues, funk, hip-hop, rock — you name it.

I don't think in terms of genre boxes. It's just music. I have access to all the things that are out there, and I draw from those traditions, but I seek to expand and expound upon them to create something fresh and hopefully shed light on future possibilities.

How long do you think you'll roll with the Light Beings?

Well, I guess it'll go as long as it's supposed to go. This is only our second performance coming up, and I'm not sure when we'll play beyond this, so catch us while you can. Just come out and have a good time.

Nicholas Payton and the Light Beings play at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 7, at the Ent Center for the Arts at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. Tickets are $20 to $69.75 and available at the university's website.
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Nick Hutchinson writes about music for Westword and enjoys playing his guitar when not on deadline.
Contact: Nick Hutchinson

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