Blowing down walls

Times Staff Writer

Nicholas PAYTON may never know what it means to miss New Orleans. He didn’t, contrary to spurious scuttlebutt, do the “jazz thing” -- relocate to New York for a hot minute, circulate, then slink back home after a couple of years to a pied-a-terre near the Garden District, hoping no one had noticed the defection.

His feet, he’ll be the first to tell you, are sunk as deep into the marshy bayou soil as nature will allow.

Still, the trumpeter, like jazz itself, has been on an extended spiritual journey -- hunting and gathering, broadening and metamorphosing -- trying to be neither a dusty relic nor a taped-together fusion cliche.

And one has the sense that even though New Orleans and its musical tradition are sewn flush against him like the silk lining of a fine set of trousers, his travels -- physically, sonically and imaginatively -- have made him a citizen of the world.


In ways as unplanned as riffing on what trots out of radio or as deliberate as unstitching the “why” of a trend, Payton, of late, has been attempting to live the improvisational nature of jazz.

And he hasn’t been all that quiet about it. So Payton, 30, figured people wouldn’t be too bent out of joint about “Sonic Trance,” his seventh album, which was released in September -- an ambitiously textured, trippy, sonic veldt that combines the expansiveness of jazz and the attitudinal funk-strut of hip-hop.

Oh, but they were.

“People asking,” muses Payton, “ ‘Has he lost his mind?’ ”

That’s why a Grammy nomination last month for best contemporary jazz album was a confidence boost: “I mean, I thought, the record is dying out there,” he continues, relaxing in a candle-scented yet otherwise bare-bones “green room” at a West L.A. recording studio, his trumpet case -- the size and shape of a fairy tale treasure chest -- close by. “It was quite a surprise.”

This project -- which shatters some walls and perceptions, about Payton and jazz itself -- has been under a lot of scrutiny, “perhaps more so than any other,” Payton says. “I’ve received a lot of favorable criticism and a lot of negative criticism as well. And I think that that was very hard for me to deal with at first.

“Not to say that I haven’t had a bad review -- but the most they would say was, ‘This is traditional sounding’ or ‘We’ve heard this before.’ ” But of late he’s been hit with “grandiose” “self-conscious,” “diffuse,” and “isn’t totally convincing. “So,” Payton continues, “because I put so much of myself in this, you feel like you’re putting yourself out there.”

In town for not quite 48 hours, Payton is waiting for his cue. He was flown to L.A. by an old friend from New Orleans, musician Giorgio Bertuccelli, to guest in a video shoot -- for singer-songwriter Joel Virgel -- on an album that blends bossa nova soul and Afro beat. (He’ll be back in town Tuesday for a set of dates at the Jazz Bakery.)


Thoughtful and soft-spoken, Payton says he resolved some time ago “to seek as many opportunities as possible outside of my genre. It really broadens my scope.” A scrap of a somber cello solo resounds in the background. “For what I’m doing now, it’s really important for me to diversify as much as possible.”

He’s been true to his word, and you can hear the hints he’s been tossing out if you follow the trail, and have been listening closely. Last year he had a guest spot on the solo debut by Trey Anastasio, guitarist for the rock-jam band Phish; loaned his trumpet lines to Common’s brightly hued, alternative/hip-hop extravaganza “Electric Circus,” and of late has been moonlighting with avant saxophonist, Greg Osby -- on disc and live.

That’s not to mention some of his own side projects beyond his quartet work: “Time Machine,” a funk-based New Orleans club band, and “Soul Patrol,” the first incarnation of what would become the ensemble for “Sonic Trance.”

The project has become Payton’s attempt not simply to toss in a touch of funk here, a pinch of rap there, a taste of dance-hall reggae, but to find a true synthesis, the places where these forms naturally meet. And if that alone weren’t enough, he upped the ante: to express it all within a jazz idiom. In other words, “Sonic Trance” “is not merely a next step for Payton,” wrote Isaac Josephson in Down Beat. “It’s his professional revolution.”


Early reputation

When Payton hit the scene 10 years ago he was already a veteran. Gigging since he was 8, he’d been branded early on as a traditionalist, one of the “New Young Lions”: the next generation of stiff-upper-lip suit-and-tie jazzmen who, in the mode of Wynton Marsalis, would carry the tradition forward -- traditionally -- as it were.

The son of classical pianist and opera singer Maria Payton and jazz bassist Walter Payton, he was immersed in music. And living in the “trumpet capital,” says Payton, had its influence. “Early on, I liked the regal quality of it. Like a call to arms.”

Those sounds swirled into New Orleans’ encompassing backbeat, a wealth of participatory traditions based on the impromptu. “We feed on that energy,” Payton enthuses. “New Orleans is steeped in second line bands, people coming out dancing on the roof-tops.”


Indeed, Payton has made making music look easy -- but that doesn’t mean simple. And though he has been on a “traditional path,” reinterpreting standards, playing in traditional settings, his head has been turned over the years by the music of his peers -- standard fare, R&B;, hip-hop, funk, but also out-of-the-mold acts like the Roots, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, DJ Mad Lib, “all of these artists who are really trying to reach in a popular idiom. They’re creating art and getting their music and message across to people. I thought it was really important.”

So the puzzle Payton has been fiddling with is how to filter those threads into his approach -- if not literally, certainly figuratively: swing versus groove.

With the 2000 album “Nick@Night,” there were glimmers that Payton was toying with adventure, experimenting with harpsichord and celesta. “It wasn’t electric yet,” he says now. “But I was hearing different colors and textures. I was really utilizing the roles of each individual musician as a compositional tool. Knowing how the pianist touches the piano, knowing what would sound brilliant coming from that particular artist. So it’s not only choosing a red, but a particular hue of red. Getting that specific about it.”

2001’s “Dear Louis,” on its face, looked to be as traditional as one can get. On its cover Payton is turned out in crisp charcoal pinstripes, with a mural image of Louis Armstrong hovering behind him. But inside, the journey features loosened-up arrangements of Armstrong signatures tweaked by organ and guitar, shading it all with different tones and colors.


He’s not alone in extrapolating on tradition -- contemporaries Roy Hargrove and Christian McBride, most notably, are bending the lines as well. But for some time, Payton has been casting about for ways to make the music feel urgent, reflective of a world that is full of shifts and contradictions and few easy answers.

“I think opening myself up has been something that I’ve been working toward gradually since my beginnings as a leader,” he explains. “And after my last recording, I sort of knew then, it was sort of like closing a chapter on the records that I wanted to make. I wanted to make more of a conscious effort to really totally, wholly dedicate myself to something timely and to bring all of these things sort of into play.”

For Payton, “Sonic Trance” coincided with a lot of change: a marriage, a fresh point of view about life and work. “I think part of your development is establishing the tradition, grounding yourself. Getting a good foundation. And after doing all of that I sort of found myself thinking I need to put all these things to use. That’s combined with the right cats, with the right label, with the right time, with the right music.”

“Sonic Trance,” his first album for Warner Bros., grew out of gigging with Soul Patrol. Disbanding his quintet (save for saxophonist Tim Warfield and drummer Adonis Rose), he put in a new set of musicians -- electric keyboardist Kevin Hays, upright bassist Vicente Archer, percussionist Daniel Sadownick and sampler-synthesizer Karriem Riggins -- to see what might bloom.


“I wanted to break away from the whole ‘melody statement, solo, solo, solo, melody out,’ ” he says. “So on ‘Sonic Trance,’ it was more about creating moods as opposed to playing tunes. I [wanted to] write it open-ended, so it could take a completely different shape in tempo, color and harmony each time, and have the cats composing on the spot ... as opposed to playing a set form, 32 bars. Now, it’s completely free.”

From track to track, Payton creates big, textured aural collages: There are flirty touches of hypnotic African talking drums that merge into a deep thicket of driving Afro beat turned sideways (“Fela 1"); a faux scratchy 78 spins out a wobbly version of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” that then connects the sonic dots between ragtime and hip-hop through a study of syncopation (“Cannabis Leaf Rag”). Throughout, Payton has been ambitious, but not without a sense of history and humor.

A preference in comparisons

There’ve been the first-blush comparisons to Miles Davis’ seminal jazz-rock fusion “Bitches Brew,” but Payton prefers a comparison to the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” -- a confab of separate musicians bringing their own inflections and influences to bear.


“There was a touch of Liverpool, of vaudeville, of Indian music,” he says of the Beatles’ most famous album. “It was inclusive of everything of the moment, from politics and culture to religion” -- a vivid, moving canvas that Payton sought not to re-create but use as a muse or jumping-off point.

Right about now, even the term jazz makes him feel confined. “Everyone has their definitions and understanding of what it should be.”

Even Payton.

And he’s trying his best to discard it.


“If I don’t see a toe tapping or hand clapping or heads moving, I get worried,” he says with a chuckle.

People come with expectations, he reflects. “I have to remind myself that people like to relive the past, but I figure that’s what records are for. If you want to hear the quintet, put on a record.”

But in his efforts to continue to move himself -- his interpretation of jazz -- forward, Payton has found himself buffeted by two competing thoughts. “The most social aspect of jazz has been lost in a way -- that dance aspect, that dialogue between people and music.”

What’s grown up in its place, he reflects, “is something that has been very detrimental to the music. There is this elitist attitude that some jazz musicians have who don’t care if people ‘feel’ or ‘get’ their music, or that if people don’t get it they aren’t intellectual enough,” he adds. “To me, I can’t get with that attitude. If people are not moved by what I’m doing, I feel like it’s a failure.”


So Payton cuts a path forward, without familiar markers. The real test, he’s learning, is “to see how much I believe in myself.”


Nicholas Payton

Where: The Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City


When: Tue.-Sun.

Price: $25

Contact: (310) 271-9039