When the lockdown came, Nicholas Payton was at his Uptown home in New Orleans, the city where he was born and raised.
Payton refers to himself as “a postmodern New Orleans musician.” And he is. He established his career on the strength, agility, sweetness and bite of his trumpet playing. Yet he can just as easily be heard these days playing a Fender Rhodes keyboard. Sometimes he plays trumpet and keyboard at the same time with surprising facility. Occasionally he sings, as he did quite a bit on his 2011 release, “Bitches.” His 2017 double-CD “Afro-Caribbean Mixtape,” was something like a masterpiece—sprawling and complex, cool in the way Payton has said “jazz” isn’t anymore, current in its sonic textures and beats, suggestive of a continuum in the overarching way that pan-national black art and philosophy always is and yet personal, like a mixtape made for lover or best friend. His 2019 release, “Relaxin’ With Nick,” recorded at Manhattan’s Smoke Jazz & Supper Club, revealed a subtler mastery, and has both the charm and bite of his live performances.
Sheltering in place while the death tolls climbed in New Orleans, which was an early epicenter for the pandemic, Payton called up two musicians he’d been meaning to record with anyway, Cliff Hines and Sasha Masakowski, both also born-and-bred in New Orleans. The cover of the album he released two weeks later, “Quarantined with Nick,”among the first lockdown-inspired releases, looked tongue-in-cheek. The messages of the songs, some arriving via chopped-up samples, are often dead-serious.
We spoke in April, about making music during a lockdown and using this “reset” to free our minds.
You’ve been making music from your quarantine, huh?
I dropped another one—“Maestro Rhythm King.” I named it for the drum machine from the ’60s that’s featured on every tune. My use of it was inspired by Sly Stone on “There’s a Riot Goin’ On.” Sly dubbed it “the funk box.”
When do you record that one?
I recorded that one in about 5 or 6 sessions between December and now. It’s sort of a sequel to that last one.
Well, let’s start there. How did “Quarantined with Nick” come about?
The three of us—me Sasha Masakowski and Cliff Hines—had done a gig a couple of days before everything got shut down. Since our schedules were clear anyway, I figured why not record? We knocked it out in two days at my place.
The sounds are so dense and enmeshed. Who did what?
Cliff Hines plays modular synth. A lot of the rhythmic bleeps and atmospheric, spaceship-sounding stuff is him. Sasha had two drum machines, so the bulk of the beats come from her. But some of them also come from Cliff. All the other synths, keys, bass and trumpet are me. Sasha has a looper. She would loop me in real time. And I would create layers. I also fed her some voice samples of people. She would chop that up and use a looper. The sequence presented on the album is the exact sequence that we played the material—90 percent of the album is in real time. There’s really not too much production.
Who is that sampled on “Bird Flew,” talking about the pandemic?
That’s “KT, the Arch Degree.” He’s kind of protégé of Dr. Sebi, who is a holistic medicine expert. But KT gets into the grander philosophizing. Kevin Eubanks sent me a videoof him speaking about the virus. I chopped up some of that and used it on the album. His general concept is that these pandemics and flus come from the mishandling and overconsumption of animals and meat, and from how we badly treat the environment.
I used that as a base on that song. Sasha had two drum machines. She set up something like a bounce beat. And the synth string samples, I just laid those chords down. Played a synth bassline and blew over that. And it was sort of double entendré. “Bird Flew” is a nod to an earlier pandemic and to Charlie Parker, too. I mean those are bebop chord changes. I pulled a synth patch that was somewhat reminiscent of an alto saxophone sound.
I’ve got some samples of Neil De Grasse Tyson. And then on “Charmin Shortage Blues,” there was this young lady from New Orleans, and hers is the voice I sampled about toilet paper. Maybe it’s the only song I know written about toilet paper. I was just making light of the ridiculousness—why, of all things, this was one of the first things to become scarce. I mean, when she says, “Do you have toilet paper at your house?” People were actually asking each other that. I took all these conversations and things that were floating about from various sources. I used the things that were reverberating—stuff like social experimentation, population control…
I have found that ever since the lockdown started, my moods shift often and unpredictably. I felt that in this music, too. Did you mean that?
The album starts off unsettled. I debated changing the sequence to be more comfortable, but then I realized that I wantedto sound unsettling. It sounds like a needle dropped in the middle of a record. And, you know—that’s how the news of this pandemic felt. We were caught off guard. Before we all knew it, we all locked down and sheltered in place. But as the album progresses, it sort of warms up a little bit.
Yes, particularly on “Tenderoma”…
Ah—a nod to corona virus, a love ballad…
An ode to a pandemic?
Not an ode, but a ballad in the sense of making peace with what is before us. I’m using this music as artists typically do, as a catharsis, to speak to moment. It’s my most real-time album—from performance to mixing to mastering, artwork, production to release in two weeks. The title “Quarantine,” and the image is a spoof of my previous release. You can see the artwork takes its design from Smoke’s branding.
Yes, “Relaxin’ with Nick”… That was a terrific album. A straight-up live date.
Yes, that’s what it was. And I was happy with it, and with it being that.
Right now, are familiar chords being struck that remind you of the floods after Hurricane Katrina? Does this bring back dark memories?
There is a similar ominous, dark vibe to it all. But what’s different about this time is that I was watching the flood go down from afar in 2005. I watched it on TV, on the road. I had moved to Houston for a couple months. This time I’m at home. There are basic services. It feels a lot different. I haven’t been relocated. My home hasn’t changed while the world watched. Instead, there’s been a shift in the universe. A universal reset button has been pressed, and the very foundation the constructs of how we live have been shaken, are shaken daily.
What’s like Katrina is that this crisis—like the crisis of the flood and all that happened after it—brings into question how much of this is natural disaster versus a manmade disaster? How much of this is preventable? How much of this is due to lack of preparation or to not paying attention? And at what point do we use these calamities and catastrophes as a wake-up call?
With Katrina, we had an opportunity for a fresh start in New Orleans that I feel was not capitalized upon. I would hope with this we can use this as a real wake-up call. What kind of wake-up call do we need? How bad to things have to be before we change how it is that we live on this planet, and how we interact with one another?
That’s the thread of my thinking, and what I wanted to get across with that album— it exposes a lot of fundamental weaknesses and inequities. I just hope it doesn’t have to get much worse. If we don’t start respecting the planet, we will be obliterated. It won’t be the other way around. We won’t destroy the planet. At the end of the day, Mother Nature is going to win.
Don’t you think there are also some fundamental inequities being exposed now, just as there were in 2005?
Yes. There’s another similarity having to do with demographics and economics. If we look at the percentage of deaths in New Orleans, in L.A., in Chicago, in New York… Black people are accounting for the majority of deaths, which is based in the systemic inequity as far as access to healthcare, and to poor diets, stress, diabetes, high blood pressure—all these things that have been hallmarks of black life in America. Much in the same way as the flood brought death and destruction to those who were less fortunate, that line separating fortunate from unfortunate seems to be highlighted again. It’s another exposure of inequity in economic terms and in terms of access to health care, and how that plays out in terms of the survival of black people in particular in this country, which is something we are yet to address properly. We are simply more vulnerable and more susceptible to dying from the things that will cause death.
Live gigs are suspended now for who knows how long. Do you think that will stimulate some unexpected forms of creativity?
Well, that’s what inspired “Quarantined,” and what inspired me to finish up the next album, “Maestro Rhythm King.” I’m just playing all the shit anyway. I can socially distance myself and prepare this music.
And there’s a third album coming—“The Light Beings.” I wrote a suite of music inspired by light waves, one tune for each light wave. If we are to transcend our inherent human flaws and errors, we have to embrace light, literally and figuratively. Humanity intrinsically needs to create hierarchical structures. No liberation of freedom is possible that way. We need to become light beings.
I’m kind of looking at these three as a trilogy. “Quarantined With Nick” is the lockdown. “Maestro Rhythm King” is the art of social distance, and insulation. “The Light Beings” will be coming out of that cocoon. How I see the light being a new era, post-lockdown.
All of this, all that we are experiencing, is energy that’s created by collective consciousness, and it has to do with lots of things, including who is elected. But we need to look closer to home for solutions, like how we treat each other on a daily basis. I strive not only in my art but as I work on my severely flawed self. Any of the work has to start from within.
Voting is important, it can make change. But we can’t vote our problems away. If we don’t fix the faulty shit about each of us, we’re nowhere fast. That’s what this crisis is exposing. What are we going to do about it? There is now time for to actually fix and repair what is wrong in our lives while we have this reset. My hope is that we finally wake up because the alarm bells keep ringing.
Do you mean your albums as alarm bells? Are they calls to a higher consciousness?
That’s why I do music. If it was just for me, no one would hear it. The only reason I play for other people and travel is to spread awareness, and hopefully inspire and uplift. I was moved by my elders and called to do this work. There are a many artists who have used their work to break down status quos and to arouse our creative selves and expose false constructs. That’s the core of what I am what I’m doing—the words I write, the music I make, and the videos I make.
Who would you pose as one example that influences you in that respect?
Louis Armstrong is the most obvious father of us all. He changed the idea of the quarter note. He revolutionized music and culture. Louis Armstrong completely transformed what was before him: There’s music before Armstrong, and after Armstrong.
His ’30s version of “Stardust.” He takes the standard and you can really hear how he takes this well-known piece and twists and bends this melody and contorts the song, and sets himself apart from the straight and almost metronomic arrangement. The essence of what it is to be black and to be in America, to be able to listen and be part of an ensemble and project your individuality and personality without infringing upon anyone else’s. That meant something revolutionary then, and it still does. That’s a revolution I signed up for.