Beginning in the 1980s, there was something of a youth movement in jazz, with “young lions” appearing on the scene, signing with major labels, donning sweet suits, and playing music that had been pioneered years before they were born. (Wynton Marsalis — now almost a greybeard and certainly a spokesperson for the establishment — was once a brash kid with lightening technique and wink for the ladies.) Plenty of these amazing young ‘uns seemed to come out of New Orleans just like Wynton, educated at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts with a love for Pops Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
In the early 1990s, the latest of the NOLA wunderkinds was trumpeter Nicholas Payton — yet another kid educated by Ellis Marsalis, promoted by Wynton Marsalis, and seemingly capable of playing hard bop for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Payton, from the start, had an unusually ripe and attractive sound — a broad and buzzing trumpet style that seemed to connect back to Armstrong without aping him in the least. He came out of the gate swinging like an old-timer, playing both sterling runs that channeled Clifford Brown (through the influence of Marsalis) and expressive declamations that put his Armstrong concept up against his duet partner, Doc Cheatham. A nice start, but a start that was deeply conservative — the start of a kid who was trying to please his elders more than be himself.
In recent years, Payton (the son of New Orleans bassist Walter Payton) has seen fit to move away from the tradition in some ways. His last release as a leader was Sonic Trance, a genuinely bold release that doused Miles Davis’s ’70s experiments in a hip-hop marinade and a pinch of wit. That release was on a new label (Warner Brothers). And now comes another label change (to the adventurous Nonesuch) and another shift of focus. This time, however, Payton’s shift feels less like a tribute recording (and he has recorded many of these both explicitly — Mysterious Shorter, Dear Louis, and Fingerpainting: The Music of Herbie Hancock) than like a self-discovery.
Into the Blue was recorded in New Orleans with Payton’s regular group, but it is not a recital that uses the delta city as a gimmick. Rather, the feeling here is one of letting go — Payton seems just to be playing, letting his horn speak plainly and naturally in a variety of settings. Which is not to say that it is a completely new sound. There is still the wide-toned trumpeter here, using his sound to fill up the sonic canvas. And there are still passages of glittering post-bop speed and clarity. There is also still the influence of Miles Davis, though now the band that Payton is emulating is the late ’60s quintet that used electric piano and expressive cymbal work to create moody soundscapes. And a New Orleans groove still pulses throughout in various forms. This amalgam of sources, however, has now been filtered through Payton’s own conception, and the cross-breeding has produced something pleasingly new. Nicholas Payton, it would seem, has grown up before our… ears.
Most plainly, this is an album that focuses the listener on Payton as a lead voice. His trumpet is the only horn, with accompaniment from Kevin Hays on piano and Fender Rhodes, bassist Vincent Archer, drummer Marcus Gilmore, and percussionist Daniel Sadownick. Rather than a brew of a jazz funk or an arrow of post-bop clarity, Into the Blue favors a variety of different settings that emphasize mystery and open-endedness. The opener, a tune by Payton’s dad for his mom named “Drucilla”, begins as an impressionistic ballad with an oblique harmonic range, but the rhythm becomes more aggressive under Hays’s acoustic solo until Payton’s improvisation stokes the fire some more, cuing a specific conga groove from Sadownick. And so the disc proceeds.
Many of the tunes here allow Hays to set the mood by laying down lush and searching beds of Fender Rhodes electric piano. The rhythm team tends to percolate beneath this playing in a pastel kind of groove, with Gilmore playing a busy but subtle set of off-kilter accents. Payton, in his Miles-ian mode, sticks to the center of the trumpet’s range, shuffling various motifs like a blackjack dealer. The backbeat is sometimes implied (“Let It Ride”) and sometimes stated with blunt force (“Triptych”), but every performance contains its own internal variations. The tunes have a cinematic feeling — every solo seems like a journey over a tumbling landscape.
The lack of a second horn does not create a void in this recording. Several tunes are arranged to twin trumpet and piano on the melody, creating a sense of precision and fullness that gives the disc stylistic range. “The Crimson Touch” not only brings Payton and Hays together in a complex unison, but it also combines the off-balance groove of an M-Base tune with a Motown-appropriate tambourine back beat. “Nida” pairs the trumpet with a Rhodes line, over a groove that socks and gets down without apology. It’s typical, then, that “Nica” slips into a flat-up chunk of swing rhythm. This is a band that makes all these transitions with utmost ease. The quiet Second Line pulse of “Fleur de Lis” also asks the trumpet and Rhodes to state the melody together, and the whole band does a masterful job of playing quietly across the compelling beat. Nothing is cluttered or overplayed — another form of surprise.
The biggest surprise of all, in likelihood, is Payton’s moody vocal on the original ballad “Blue”. He’s no ideal singer — let’s be clear. But the song is put across in a reedy tenor with attitude, and the Rhodes and muted trumpet solos are so fine that the vocal comes off as worthy source material. Plus, the melody of this tune is so strong that you can see why it cried out for a legitimate lyric. Payton gets through it and, ultimately, gives Into the Blue yet another variation in texture and color.
It’s no surprise that the producer of Into the Blue is Bob Belden, a musician and producer who has been deeply involved in producing Miles Davis reissues from the ’60s and ’70s. Belden found ways to encourage Payton to explore his Miles-ian side without resorting to explicit Davis mimicry. One genius stroke is having the band cover “Chinatown”, the Jerry Goldsmith tune from the great movie starring Jack Nicholson. This cinematic piece is not directly related to Davis, but it plays to the element of his legacy that Into the Blue seems to want to invoke — a textural scene-setting and a moody storytelling that relies less on virtuosic playing over musical structures than it does on heartfelt feeling.
Into the Blue is Nicholas Payton’s most mature and fully realized album because it breaks new ground without abandoning the past. By invoking both his personal history (the clarion cry of his early playing as well as the groove-based recent work) and some of the history of the music, Payton has built something that knows what it is about. With strong support for Kevin Hays but a plain focus on just one horn — his own — Payton has put himself in a superb position to define himself as a mature jazz artist. And now we know: he is as much a storyteller as he is a player, and that creates certain anticipation for more great music to come.