Sunday, July 11, 2010

Nicholas Payton Sexxxtet Concert: Jun 24, 2010

On the 24th of June, I headed downtown to check out Nicholas Payton's group at Le Poisson Rouge. I should preface this by saying that Nicholas Payton is one of my favorite jazz trumpet players of all time. I really think he is one of the greats. In addition to dominating the trumpet, he is a brilliant improvisor with a truly unique sound. I'm particularly fascinated with what he's been up to lately. Like many other artists of today's generation, Payton has moved away from playing purely "straight-ahead jazz" (if that term even means anything anymore) and is now experimenting with the blending of other musical elements into the jazz format. Of course, people have been melding jazz with other genres since the beginning of the music, but a new crop of musicians are successfully mixing jazz with hip hop. I say "successfully" because this idea of cross-pollinating jazz with hip hop has been going on since the 90's and hasn't always worked. The problem with many of the early attempts is that they seemed unable to adopt the new beats without sacrificing the sense of freedom, interaction and harmonic/rhythmic sophistication that makes jazz so exciting to listen to. The result often sounded more like an instrumental hip hop record. Some, even veered into smooth jazz territory.

In my opinion, it is the latest generation of musicians who have finally blended hip hop and jazz in an organic and honest way. I'm talking about musicians like pianist Robert Glasper and drummer Chris Daddy Dave. Unlike a lot of the older players, these aren't jazz traditionalists trying to infuse hip hop into jazz in a contrived way. The new generation of jazz musicians actually grew up with hip hop, and like a child who grows up bilingual, many of them can speak both languages fluently. They also take hip hop just as seriously as they do jazz.

Even though Nicholas Payton came into prominence at the end of the "young lions" period in the 90's, he seems just as at home with the newer crop of forward-thinking jazz musicians. His last CD, "Into the Blue" is a cool mix of hip-hop elements with both Latin and New Orleans beats, all packaged in a funky, cool, rhodes-soaked sound. The fact that Payton ventured into contemporary territory was a surprise for many people. (Roy Hargrove had already gone down this road with his RH Factor albums.) But, after recording his Louis Armstrong big band tribute "Dear Louis," Payton seemingly took a left turn with "Sonic Trance," an album that attempted to fuse everything from electronica to mariachi music to ragtime.

This first attempt at a new sound definitely stirred up a backlash from many of his fans. I myself never thought it was that strange. I felt like it was a natural progression from one of my favorite earlier Nicholas Payton joints, "Nick @ Night," which blended straight ahead jazz with funk and R&B beats. Payton also worked in some unusual instruments for jazz like the celeste and harpsichord. Yet, he did it in a way that sounded totally natural. The writing on this album is really creative. The first track, "Beyond the Stars" is a clever mix of jazz harmony, Bach-like polyphony and funky straight-eight grooves. Payton's next album, "Sonic Trance," pushed the envelope even more, but it I think Payton has really settled on his new sound with "Into the Blue." The album proves that Payton is more than a brilliant trumpeter and improvisor. He is a creative thinker, which believe it or not, isn't always the case with jazz musicians.

Which leads me to a quick gripe session. I love to swing as much as the next guy, but sometimes I think today's jazz musicians are their own worst enemies. In the 80's and 90's, it seemed natural to be focusing one straight ahead jazz. There was a real feeling of a rediscovery going on. This was the era of Wynton, Lincoln Center, Ken Burns Jazz, IAJE, and Verve Records with their stable of young lions (one of which was Nicholas Payton himself). But every period must come to an end and this one was no different. Since those days, IAJE has folded and Verve has dropped almost everyone on their jazz roster except a handful of jazz(ish) vocalists. These days, a lot of the straight ahead albums sound tired, like the musicians themselves are sick of playing the same tunes from the 30's through the 60's but don't want to admit it.

The truth is, if we don't adapt and grow, our music is going to become obsolete. A lot of purists see jazz artists looking to hip hop for inspiration and act like they are completely throwing the jazz tradition to the wayside. But that just isn't true. These guys clearly have a healthy respect for the rich history of this music. Nicholas Payton can play in the style of Louis Armstrong better than anyone I've ever heard, and Robert Glasper has clearly checked out the greats on piano, especially Herbie Hancock. In other words, these guys are serious jazz heads. But they've also investigated the greats in hip hop from Dr. Dre to RZA.

Jazz has gone global people. This is the age of the internet. It's time to embrace it, not fight it. More than ever in it's history, music from all over the world is seeping into jazz and vice versa. Hip hop is just one example. Jazz will inevitably fuse itself to countless musical genres and I for one think it's exciting. Maybe jazz will loose some of it's sense of identity in the process, but I don't really think so. We'll always have the recordings of masters like Miles and Coltrane to keep us humble. And remember, Miles himself thought it was a good idea to experiment with other forms of music way back in the 60's. Maybe 50 years later, it's time to finally let go and follow him down that path.

Sorry. Enough of my ranting. On to the concert! The event was produced by a company called Revive Da Live. I suggest you check their site out here. The company is run by Meghan Stabile, a former Berklee student who now devotes herself to promoting events where jazz musicians and hip hop artists can collaborate. I can really relate to what she's trying to do. I like that her events bring people together from different hemispheres on the musical globe. I wish we had more devoted, out-of the box thinkers in the jazz business like her. This particular event was produced in conjunction with the Carefusion Jazz Festival-New York. It featured both Nicholas Payton's group as well as the Revive Da Live Big Band (more on that later).

Let me just start off by saying Nicholas' band was killing! He
was backed by Marcus Strickland on drums, Daniel Sadownick on percussion, Vincente Archer on bass and Lawrence Fields on piano. As a jazz trumpeter who has followed Payton since his Verve days, I can tell you his playing has changed dramatically. When I saw him perform in the mid 90's, he was a truly superhuman trumpet player. He played with the biggest sound I had ever heard. He seemed to have infinite chops and endurance, and his solos were always filled with amazing feats of daring and creative trumpet playing. Then I began hearing rumors that he was having an embouchure crisis, something a lot of great trumpet players have gone through at some point in their career.

As is so often the case in life, adversity can lead to positive change. In this case, Payton addressed his trumpet issues and began developing a more mature, thoughtful style. On this particular night at Le Poisson Rouge, I heard an improvisor playing with altogether different mindset than he had as a young upstart. The flash and technique are still there when he needs them, but now his solos are more expansive, exploratory and textural.

I can't help being reminded of when Miles Davis decided to move away from bebop in the late 50's. I remember watching an interview in which Davis said he felt the harmonies of bebop had forced him to fall back on cliches. This was one of the primary reasons he began experimenting with modal concepts, which he famously introduced with the album "Kind of Blue." It seems to me like Payton is on a similar path of finding freedom through simplification. His album "Into the Blue" feels like it's a reaction to the jazz traditionalists of today in the same way that "Kind of Blue" was in its day. Even the titles of the albums sound suspiciously similar.

Most of the tunes featured on the Le Poisson Rouge concert were from the "Into the Blue" album and often featured vamps with just a couple of chords. Over these sonic backdrops, Payton would build long complex solos with the incredibly simple devices. He might take a tiny melodic idea and repeat it over and over again, playing with it each time, turning it inside out and upside down. At one point, I remember him just playing a single note over and over, and varying the articulation, rhythmic placement and tone each time he played it. He'd take that one note and play it waaay back on the beat, and then drop it right back into the pocket. At another point, he played a simple two-note trill and sat on it for what seemed like a minute or two and circular breathed. But the coolest part was what he was he was doing rhythmically. He'd speed the trill up so the two notes sounded like sixteenth notes and then slow them down to triplets. It was like the two notes were in constant rhythmic flux.

I also found it interesting that Payton's solos as a whole seemed to break the single-climax story arc which most jazz solos follow. If the typical jazz solo is a short story, Payton's solos were novels. They usually began with a few sparsely placed ideas separated by long pauses. He took a lot of patience in slowly developing these motifs while he built the intensity of his solos higher and higher, until finally he reached a huge climax. But instead of trailing off and ending the solo like most people would, he'd veer of into another musical direction. His solos ebbed and flowed, sometimes resulting in two or three high points.

As for the music itself, I was really impressed by the way the entire concert felt like one musical stream of consciousness. It wasn't just that there were transitions from song to song. It was like the songs actually melded into each other. The best example I can think of is Payton's tune "Triptych," which ended with an repeating eight-bar vamp. As Payton soloed over the vamp, he started playing the head from "Days of Wine and Roses." At first, I just thought he was being clever by quoting the tune. But, he kept repeating the melody and I started to realize something was about to happen. Sure enough, the band was suddenly off and swinging into "Days of Wine and Roses." I thought, transition. Then, a few choruses into the tune, the piano player starting playing the vamp of "Triptych" again. I thought maybe they were going to go back to the previous tune, but I realized they were still playing "Days of Wine and Roses." They were just superimposing the changes from the last tune. It was like the two tunes had been fused together in some fundamental way. It was really hip.

I also noticed that Payton used the following lick several times during the concert to signal the end of vamp:
This is a lick I've heard him use since his days with the Sonic Trance band. He'd be blowing over a vamp and out of nowhere he'd play this lick and the band would stop on a dime. This ending was like a leitmotif that showed up at various points of different tunes and kind of tied the whole concert together in a nice bow.

You might have noticed the band was called the Nicholas Payton SeXXXtet. Despite the provocative name there were only five people on stage most of the time, and I never saw any of them having sex. Seriously though, there were a couple of occasions when the band brought up a sixth member; a fantastic vocalist named Somi. She came out on a couple of tunes and sang lyrics to tunes such as "Triptych," which Payton had originally recorded as an instrumental. She had a beautiful voice, but it looked like she was sight-reading the music and was there more as an added texture. Still, I really liked her voice and hope he uses her on a future project.

That brings me to the last event of the night, the "Revive Da Live Big Band." Led by trumpeter Igmar Thomas, the band was made up of an interesting mix of New York musicians. In the trumpet section, I noticed Philip Dizack, whom I played with in Caruso Competition. I also noticed Dwayne Eubanks and Maurice Brown. The band was backed by Payton's rhythm section and featured some special guests.

Admittedly, the "hip hop big band" concept didn't always work, but when it did, it was really cool. I especially enjoyed the two tunes from Payton's "Into the Blue" album that were adapted for the big band. They reminded me of Freddie Hubbard's CTI recordings, but with a distinctly hip hop vibe. Payton and his guest singer also came out and sang on a couple of these tunes. In addition to being the opening act, Payton was also the special guest for the big band portion of the concert, and he blew over most of the tunes. The band also brought out some special guests to sit in including a group of tap dancers as well as the famous Brooklyn emcee, Talib Kweli. All in all, the event really impressed me. The company producing the concert, Revive Da Live, could have just booked Payton, rented the room and sold tickets. Instead, they put a lot of work and care into creating an event that really pushed the envelope by putting people together who might not normally collaborate. The result was a concert that felt truly unique and special.

(Check out the videos below for some live coverage from the show I found on Youtube...)

Well, that's my review, long-winded as it may be. It's just that Nicholas Payton is one of the few trumpet players today making music I even want to talk about. I'm curious what you think of his recordings and playing, so make sure you leave some comments. I'm especially interested if anyone knows more about his embouchure issues and what he did to address them. I hope to take a lesson from Nicholas sometime in the future and share what I learn with you, so stay tuned. In the meantime, be sure to visit Nicholas Payton's page here, Le Poisson Rouge's page here, and Revive Da Live's page here to stay up-to-date on coming events.