Through more of a decade writing about the lives and careers of musicians born and raised in New Orleans, I’ve been fascinated by how the best of these artists have not been weakened by their experiences since the floods that resulted from the levee failures following Hurricane Katrina, nor by the indifference and outright racism that persists in their native city.
Rather they’ve grown bolder.
Nicholas Payton, more than any other musician I know, speaks truth to power, and to anyone who will listen. He can be relentless, which I’ve come to regard as one of his charms.
As I wrote in an earlier post about Payton:
Payton is an intense and restless soul, and his thoughts and feelings spill forth with self-assuredness and defiant pride through both his music and his online posts. His music should probably raise more eyebrows than it does because, aside from its integrity and range, it generally doesn’t respect the party line heeded by many so-called jazz musicians. Payton’s blog posts—in which, among other stances, he refuses to wear the term “jazz,” and instead favors the acronym BAM (for Black American Music)—perhaps shouldn’t raise as many eyebrows as they have. At least, these missives can’t be dismissed as rants, which they’re not, or even radical, which they’re also not. The musicians involved in Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) said pretty much the same things 50 years ago.
I’ll not get into a long catalog of what Payton has written online and what was then written about him and what he then wrote in response (though it’s easy enough, and illuminating, to follow that chronology). Yes, it’s about race as much as music, as it should be: Yet whereas, say, the comments appended to articles in the Times Picayune of Payton’s hometown discusses race in a lowest-common-denominator who-can-hate-more style, Payton channels his own feelings (sometimes, yes, rage) into the sort of truth-telling that black trumpeters born and raised in the United States have long done. Amstrong and Miles Davis weren’t enamored with the term “jazz” either.
As I wrote in my Wall Street Journal review of Payton’s brilliant new 2-CD release, “Afro-Caribbean Mixtape” (Paytone/Ropeadope):
This new album lends more graceful expression to his argument—for an enduring black aesthetic that bows to jazz masters without implying servitude, and that embraces African influence across several genres. Words prove critical here, too. In the mix—sometimes buried, other times clear—are sampled snatches of spoken-word sources, manipulated by the turntablist. On “Jazz Is a Four-Letter Word,” the voice of Max Roach (from a 1993 interview that Mr. Payton found on YouTube) describes an unbroken line of ingenuity from Charlie Parker to Michael Jordan to Michael Jackson. On the title track, Greg Kimathi Carr, head of Howard University’s Afro-American Studies Department, explains “African ways of knowing.
“I use these audio clips the way the great beatmakers use their samples,” Payton told me in an interview. “I have a repository at my disposal, and I know what’s in there.” The music itself was formed in similar fashion. “I stopped writing songs 10 years ago,” he says. “When I hearmotifs or melodic fragments, I record them into voice memos and I stockpile ideas.”
Payton combined these elements the way he might have made a cassette mixtape for a friend decades ago—“selecting the best moments I could find in my mental databank,” he writes in his liner note, and “considering exactly where to pause a track if you wanted to beat match or make a transition between songs seamless.” The album begins with the sound of a tape reel fast-forwarding and then finding its place.
Here’s my full review below:THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Feb. 7, 2017
Nicholas Payton’s new album fuses the traditions of his hometown, New Orleans, with modern jazz, hiphop, mixtape and spoken-word cultures.
By LARRY BLUMENFELD
Early in a recent performance at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, within Jazz at Lincoln Center, a casual listener might have assumed Nicholas Payton to be a keyboardist with a fondness for Fender Rhodes electric piano and a way with a slow tempo. Minutes later Mr. Payton lifted a trumpet to his lips with his right hand and began to blow, while playing keyboard with his left, and a fuller profile began taking shape. Soon—his horn now gripped in both hands—Mr. Payton revealed the strength, agility, sweetness and bite upon which he established a career more than 20 years ago.
On trumpet, Mr. Payton can ignite a room with a fiery solo or silence it with a tender passage; he did both at Dizzy’s. Yet these days his music doesn’t rely on those abilities or that horn.
Mr. Payton arrived on jazz’s scene cast as a gifted neotraditionalist. He has spent the decades since departing from that mold. His new release, “Afro-Caribbean Mixtape” (Paytone/Ropeadope), out Friday, is his clearest and boldest expression of an aesthetic he’s long pursued. It’s sprawling (two CDs with more than two hours of music), involves more than a dozen musicians, and yet sounds focused and personal.
That cohesion is due largely to tightly interlocked elements: the flexible, quicksilver rhythmic dialogue between Joe Dyson’s trap set and Daniel Sadownick’s hand percussion; the layers of texture woven by Mr. Payton and Kevin Hays, who both play keyboard and piano on several tracks; and the dance of accents from bassist Vincente Archer and turntablist DJ Lady Fingaz.
There’s also a strong conceptual through-line. Beginning in 2011, Mr. Payton has raised a fuss online with blog posts rejecting the term “jazz” as limiting, or worse; he proposed the moniker, “Black American Music.” This new album lends more graceful expression to his argument—for an enduring black aesthetic that bows to jazz masters without implying servitude, and that embraces African influence across several genres. Words prove critical here, too. In the mix—sometimes buried, other times clear—are sampled snatches of spoken-word sources, manipulated by the turntablist. On “Jazz Is a Four-Letter Word,” the voice of Max Roach (from a 1993 interview that Mr. Payton found on YouTube) describes an unbroken line of ingenuity from Charlie Parker to Michael Jordan to Michael Jackson. On the title track, Greg Kimathi Carr, head of Howard University’s Afro-American Studies Department, explains “African ways of knowing.”
Still, nothing seems academic. The album flows, moving joyously from, say, Mr. Payton’s trumpet playing, supporting by a string quartet, on “Jewel,” to the disco-tinged funk of “Junie’s Interlude.” Some tracks ride easy grooves, others move fitfully within densely constructed soundscapes. There are compelling examples of Afro-Cuban rumba and, yes, modern jazz, but these all seem like momentary means toward a larger and unified end.
Mr. Payton’s wide-ranging liner note cites a paternal ancestor in his native New Orleans, who is said to have played with Buddy Bolden and to have formed Henry Payton’s Accordiana Band “before anyone was thinking about jazz.” His own problem with the word “jazz” is the sense that someone else is trying to box him in. “Afro-Caribbean Mixtape” is a work of great rigor and discipline, steeped in jazz tradition and yet utterly unbound.