A kind of concept album that places a void at the center of black American music, a void for you to fill.
When a major instrumental talent makes a recording on which she or he plays very little of the instrument that made her or him famous, that is a statement. Miles Davis did this for a time in the 1970s, perhaps as a way of emphasizing that his music was increasingly a collective, not a “series of solos” as had become customary in jazz. Ornate Coleman moved away from just his alto saxophone for a period of time, stretching out to violin and trumpet.
The brilliant trumpeter Nicholas Payton started his career as a player, a young guy who was acclaimed for a great sound and for great chops — for being a trumpet player, and one from New Orleans to boot. He played duets with Doc Cheatam (when Doc was 91 and he was 23) and came out under the Marsalis umbrella of traditional virtuosity.
Today, however, Payton is certainly emphasizing concept over chops. In 2014, Payton made “jazz” headlines by writing extensively (and persuasively) online about why he rejects the word “jazz” in favor of BAM or “Black American Music”. His new recording Numbers is not a polemic of any kind, but it does smack of being a statement in that the leader plays trumpet on just a single track, and there he simply plays the melody. For the remainder of the dozen tracks, Payton is heard only on a keyboard, and even that is deceptive. The vast majority of the music on Numbers features no one in particular. That is, these compositions are nearly all played by a rhythm section from which voices rarely rise up to “take solos” and in which no voice claims primacy. Even with that understood, the concept is more radical than you might think. This is not a collection of collective improvisations or of many voices in which no single one is most important. Rather, these tracks present rhythm section arrangements of songs over which soloists might have played melodies (or played improvised melodies) — left unadorned. These tracks are purposeful voids of a sort.
In interviews, Payton has acknowledged that this is his concept. He has created the ultimate “play-along record” — a disc that allows the listener to participate in one of many ways. One listener may be moved to sing above the rhythm section. Another might rap. Another might play an improvised solo in response to the harmonies. Most of us will fill the space more abstractly, listening and hearing into the space, or feeling the void at the center as a kind of music itself.
Payton is aware that this is a conceptual experiment every bit as clear as the Kind of Blue recreation recently perpetuated by Mostly Other People Do the Killing. Payton has created a dancing, eminently fillable open space at the center of a recording, and his goal is to dare his audience to hear that emptiness, surrounded as it is by very subtle syncopations that seem to come from our collective memory of what much black American music has sounded like during the last 50 years.
Playing with Payton here is a band called Butcher Brown from Virginia: Devonne Harris on keys, Keth Askey on guitar, Andrew Randazzo on bass, and Corey Fonville’s drums. The band is tight the way real bands can be, so the funky bass line on “Three” is locked in super-solid with drums, with a disco-era guitar lick tickling the rhythm perfectly. Fender Rhodes floats over this like a morning mist. “Eleven”, even without a melody or center, has such an infectious bass line and set of snappy changes that lock over the line that it essentially gets away with being a pop song as is. “Twelve” is built on a snapping New Orleans drum groove. The blood pumps.
On “Eight” the band starts with a light, dancing motif for Rhodes and a set of mellow chords over mid-tempo 4/4 (over which Payton noodles a bit, including a quick quote from “A Night in Tunisia” and some high tremolo chords that quote Herbie Hancock), but it then shifts into walking swing for several minutes. Black American music of a certain era is evoked. Quite often the musical landscapes are extremely impressionistic rather than being "smooth jazz" without the soprano sax. “Nine” has a daring drum pattern to start, a waving, syncopated beginning under which bass and guitar play licks that pull and tug at the already relative sense of time. Not that it isn’t grooving, but it’s just not as obvious as some kind of Stevie Wonder karaoke track.
The concept is intriguing. Recent years have brought us a great deal of music in which an artist such as Robert Glasper channels just as much soul and hip hop as he does Charlie Parker or Herbie Hancock. In these Glasper soundscapes, the center might be content that gets the music considered for the R&B Grammy rather than some “jazz” accolade. With Numbers, Payton withholds the singer or rapper or trumpet solo that might help us to categorize the music. Implicitly, he asks us if we really know what these categories mean in the first place. And by using lesser-known sidemen he raises other interesting question about how we hear (or don’t truly hear) the content of the music we critique or revere.
It’s tempting to hear Numbers in conjunction with Payton’s last few releases, of course. On 2008’s Into the Blue, he stepped far from tradition with a sense of purpose, exploring music that might have been a cousin to Miles Davis’s late ‘60s work, but from a very personal place. Then in 2011 Payton made a pop record with guest vocalists, his own vocals, and only his own instrumental work in overdub. The year 2013 found him playing live at DC’s Bohemian Caverns, but now mostly playing Fender Rhodes rather than trumpet in wildly varied rhythmic settings — yet in the same year he released a very faithful recording of Miles’s Sketches of Spain with a large band. While Numbers may be the logical result of some trends, this is hardly a linear progression.
If Nicholas Payton is operating in a particular tradition, it is one that moves in circles rather than straight lines, one that operates through riddles and instinct as much as by rules. Sure, he was going to record trumpet melodies and solos over these tracks, but he decided to leave that up to you — to provide the power of a void where the obvious might have been. Intriguing. I’d be shocked if he repeated this method again, just as I’d be amazed (and disappointed) if Mostly Other People Do the Killing (or some other band) re-recorded a note-for-note version of Out to Lunch. But here it is, this delicate and strangely beautiful experiment. Play along?