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Nicholas Payton - In Conversation

Nicholas Payton with the Blue Note 7 Nicholas Payton with the Blue Note 7 Photographer - Morrice Blackwell

 New Orleans trumpeter Nicholas Payton has never conformed to anyone or anything. Reading his Facebook posts and Twitter “tweets”, you sort of get an idea about how un-traditional he is. He speaks his mind and, should someone attempt to challenge him on his views, is hardly lost for words. His outspoken nature has allowed him to create material for “Bitches”, a CD with a controversial title with tracks that draws experiences from his own love life. 

The tracks on “Bitches” are pleasantly unique and listeners can hear Nicholas sing on tracks that have the sort of unexpected musical nuances that transcend the boundaries of jazz music.  Nicholas plays just about every instrument on this new collection and he has also employed the services of some jazz vocal heavyweights including Cassandra Wilson, Grammy award winner Esperanza Spalding, N’Dambi and Chinah Blac to name a few.  The music of “Bitches” deviates from what might be described as Payton's signature sounds and this musical diversity adds hugely to what is an extremely appealing mix.

The hybrid of jazz blended with funk, R&B, neo soul and pop music is engaging to say the least.   “Bitches” was developed in two acts: one of burgeoning love and the other of a breakup. The first track, the funk-induced “By My Side”, is a tune that is reminiscent of 80s funk with all the trimmings of synth bass and drum machines while Payton's vocals can be compared to a controlled CeeLo Green.  “Freesia” is the track that follows. It features Esperanza Spalding on vocals and develops into a groovy, head bopping number that is an immediate fan favorite. The song gets its shine from Nicholas’ fluid flugelhorn which darts in and out of the unique melody.  Elsewhere, Nicholas is charming on the sexy and melodically ballads that form much of the first act and this is particularly so on “Togetherness Foreverness” for which he is paired with singer N’ambi.

Pour the wine, recline and enjoy the beguiling “Shades of Hue”, a track which features Payton's eloquent trumpet solo. Tracks like “Indigo” and the “You Are The Spark” are delightful numbers that close off the first act. The second act is when the music advances into third gear and “The Second Show (Adam’s Plea)” has the mood of an eighties pop song which places the listener firmly into the wonderful land of synths and high-pitched harmonies.   In terms of personal favorites “Flip the Script” features Saunders Sermons and I predict that deejays will have a field day spinning out remixes to this one. With a melody that follows niether rhyme or reason its flexibility is perfect for the addition of musical tricks.

As eccentric as the beats on this track are, they all come together quite seamlessly when you least expect it.  Other notable tracks on the Second Act is the playful “iStole your iPhone” and the evocative “You Take Me Places I’ve Never Been Before” which proves to be a stunning ballad that features Cassandra Wilson as guest vocalist. The CD closes with the title cut, a rollicking song with humorous lyrics and the perfect way to end the CD.  

Nicholas, who has been busy promoting the release of his new CD, took some time out to talk to  

Jazz Review: Nicholas, most would admit that this new CD deviates from some of the music you have done in the past; this time around you used a lot of synth instruments and of course you sing. Tell us more about your decision to do this.  

Nicholas Payton: It’s something I’ve been working towards for quite a few records, back to “Dear Louis.” I also sang a tune on “Into The Blue.” Electronic instruments were heavily employed on “Sonic Trance” and my love for R&B goes as far back as “Payton’s Place” with “People Make the World Go ‘Round” and  “Nick @ Night” with “Sun Goddess.”  I think in a lot of ways these ideas are things I experimented with progressively throughout my discography. It is something I’ve wanted to do for a while.  

Jazz Review: How long did the CD take to put together? 

Nicholas Payton: I’ve been writing tunes with lyrics for over 10 years now. I wrote “Freesia” in 1998 making it the oldest tune on the record. Most of the songs with live bass and drums were written for "Into The Blue", the rest were composed around the summer of 2009. 

Jazz Review: You play all the instruments on this CD plus you sing, I think this is very impressive. Why didn’t you use other musicians this time around? 

Nicholas Payton: When I did “Into the Blue,” I recorded demos before I went in the studio. I sent them to the cats in advance so they could get a feel for the vibe of the record. I remember one of my musicians at the time said jokingly, “You can make the record yourself. You don’t need us.” That stuck with me. People had been telling me for years I should do a record playing all the instruments, but I never wanted it to be a thing of novelty. It grew organically out of me recording these demos and that was the genesis of the tracks for “Bitches.”  

Jazz Review:: The music here is filled with beats that seem mismatched with lovely chord progressions like I've never heard before, but they manage to all fall in place to make something really fantastic. You also have different types of moods to each track. Talk more about that. 

Nicholas Payton: I’m just being true to me. I’m not trying to be original per se, just writing what I feel. I mean, all of these tunes are derived from real-life experiences. The songs here tell a story and they all represent a different aspect and manner of love. I put words and music to things that I really felt at one particular time so in that regard it was pretty easy to be original or different. Writing it was therapeutic, I put my energy and emotion into it.

JazzReview: What inspired you to write this CD?

Nicholas Payton: All my music is autobiographical, however some of it is not necessarily from my perspective but how I imagine someone else would feel in a situation. Regardless of the source, they are all ultimately filtered through my vision. 

Jazz Review: On your Facebook wall you posted a link of a Bessie Smith song and said that you used her reference of “sausage meat” in the song “Bitches.” Did you borrow a lot of phrases from old jazz songs the way you did here? 

Nicholas Payton: “Sausage meat” was taken from a song by Bessie Smith called, “Kitchen Man.” I used to hear my dad play that tune in a New Orleans play based on the Vaudeville era called “One Mo’ Time” written by Vernel Bagneris. I recalled it by virtue of the environment that I grew up in but made no conscious attempt to insert it into my piece. When things like that come through, it is because they are a genuine part of my life. 

Jazz Review: How long does it take you to compose a song? 

Nicholas Payton: When I write a tune, I’m in the zone so it doesn’t take too long. I wrote “iStole Your iPhone” in five minutes. I don’t really write music or tunes per se, I don’t sit at a piano and say “I’m going to write a song.” I just get a feeling. Something inspires me and I immediately hear chords or rhythms which feel like that experience to me. There are times when I can’t control the compositional aspect because it just keeps coming. At a certain point, I feel almost like I want it to stop because it’s painful, like having a baby. It’s exhausting. The creative part of it is so heavy, so fast and rapid, I feel like I can’t contain it. I didn’t set out to do a record like this, the story told itself.

Jazz Review: Okay, let’s talk about your guest vocalists, because you have managed to get some of the best in the industry on this album. How did you go about choosing them? 

Nicholas Payton: Because I played all the instruments on the recording, I wanted to have some other energy to balance the project out so guest vocalists seemed like the way to go. Each piece has a character and I selected the guests according to who I felt would best represent a particular song.  

Jazz Review: So what do you think real straight-ahead jazz musicians, those who never stray from a specific genre, what would they think about “Bitches?” 

Nicholas Payton: To be honest, I don’t really give much consideration at all to what musicians think. That said, most cats I know are open-minded, critics that’s another story. “Bitches” is a blues record. I don’t look at music in terms of being jazz or bebop. Genres are like colors to me. When I’m trying to paint a picture, the idea is not to limit myself. The more colors, the more options and different places I can go. Will everybody like it? No. But that’s okay, not every soul and R&B artist will like it either. Most of the guys I know who swing like all sorts of music even if they don’t play it. 

Jazz Review: What sort of feedback are you getting so far with the new CD? 

Nicholas Payton: Feedback has been positive for the most part. However, there are people who have been turned off from the title of the record alone. After much debate, Concord Records decided not to release it, so they gave it back to me. Fortunately, I was able to secure a licensing deal with In And Out records which, quite honestly, is a much better situation. 

Jazz Review: What are they saying about the title of the CD in particular? One must admit it can get people talking. 

Nicholas Payton: There appears to be a lot of controversy surrounding the title. It garnered a lot of buzz even before the record was released. I believe it’s largely due to the fact that the album is called “Bitches” and it’s an R&B record from an artist who is considered straight-ahead. I don’t pay mind to the categorizations. I’m an artist and I express myself in different ways; through song, through composition, through my voice, in words, in music and many different aspects. I can’t make everybody happy, nor do I try. I create music that is true to me, and whether you like it or not, it’s real. That’s really my whole thing, to make music that’s honest. I haven’t been wrong in that. Some people out there will get it. Some won’t. The more personal my journey is, the deeper it gets, the stronger the reaction.  

 Jazz Review: So, now that the CD has been launched, what do you have planned next? 

Nicholas Payton: I have a couple of projects in mind. In terms of music and ideas, I have enough material for five records ready to go right now.  Last year was the American debut of my 21-piece big band The Nicholas Payton Television Studio Orchestra. I love the energy of an ensemble of that size so I want to focus heavily on getting it off the ground as well as my other groups of various sizes. For the rest of the year I am going to chill and resume touring in 2012. 

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Nicholas Payton
  • Interview Date: January 2012
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