Warner 2003
label website, artist website
Given my experience of trumpeter Nicholas Payton, I was frankly startled by the music on this, his first Warner Brothers' release. Not that the commanding level of Payton's musicianship is news - not by a long shot. Here's a young man, not yet 30, who has been a force to reckon with on the trumpet ever since he first emerged on the New Orleans scene at the tender age of eleven. Nor can anyone dispute his impeccable credentials as a jazz musician in the mainstream acoustic tradition. Over the past decade, Payton fronted a series of albums for Verve that celebrated the modernism of the post-Coltrane/ Miles generation, while cementing his links to the output of a musician with whom he bears a more than passing physical and instrumental resemblance - Louis Armstrong. Payton’s mastery of Armstrong’s milieu is well-represented by his final Verve recording, Dear Louis, and by the Grammy Award Winner recording he co-chaired at the tender age of 23 with a then 91 year-old brass master who used to sub for Armstrong back in 1926: Doc Cheatham & Nicholas Payton.

However, given Payton's lineage, the surprise here is that this cakewalking collage of collective improvisation, electronic sounds and elemental syncopations is the most personal, original statement this trumpet virtuoso has ever made. And he has an interesting new band that reflects his new-fangled visions of a jazz aesthetic: Tim Warfield on tenor and soprano saxophones; Adonis Rose on drums; Kevin Hays on electric keyboards and piano; Vicente Archer on bass; and Danny Sadownick on percussion, with Karriem Riggins playing synthesizer and providing sampling.

Sonic Trance is just what I've been waiting for - a music of inclusion. I hope it helps liberate others from the notion that there is only one way to play jazz, one way to swing, one kind of psycho-acoustic perspective, one way to orchestrate music. This is smart music with a touch of danger and wit, a bold take on the past century, let alone the sample and hold of the past 35 years. Not yet fully formed, Sonic Trance is a fascinating transitional statement, giving us a sneak preview of some fanciful future where improvising musicians may get to have their cake and eat it, too. It's right up to the minute, translating modern electronics and recording technology into a convincing patchwork of hot and cool grooves.

As someone who came of age during the early 1970s when all sorts of hyphenated jazz miscegenation was the norm, I reveled in the edgy experimentation and danger of those early fusion search parties. Musicians young enough to dig contemporary artists -- such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Hendrix Experience, Cream, Zappa and Zeppelin on one hand; Sly, Aretha, Otis Redding, James Brown and Marvin Gaye on the other -- yet devoutly grounded in the tradition of Miles and Clifford and Dizzy; Mingus, Monk, Blakey, Bud Powell; and Cecil, Bird, Coltrane, Rollins, Dolphy and Ornette; decided that since it was all cool, let's see what happens when we throw it all together, along with a sidecar of third world sounds. Bands like the Gary Burton Quartet and Oregon, as well as those of Miles Davis and his alumni (the Tony Williams Lifetime, Weather Report; Herbie Hancock and either Mwandishi or the Headhunters; Chick Corea & Return To Forever, the Mahavishnu Orchestra) created a polyglot approach to the tradition. It's one that clearly informs Payton's work although it's a tad simplistic to draw too straight a line between Bitches Brew and Sonic Trance. Payton himself likens his aural collage to a combination of cinema and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Listen to the Fellini-like carousing that introduces "Two Mariachis On The Wall", and how Payton's fiercely articulated solo turn reflects the Spanish tinge in jazz from Ferdinand Morton up through Sketches Of Spain.

The big difference between the music on Payton's Sonic Trance and such obvious fusion archetypes as Bitches Brew? His abiding love for the New Orleans music tradition, the admixture of beats, samples and electronic sound effects that characterize modern urban music. While the trumpeter's mastery of various jazz traditions causes Sonic Trance to resonate with elements of collective improvisation from throughout the century, Payton & Company's attitude gives this new mix a decidedly 21st century perspective. Perhaps we should label an arrangement like "Cannabis Leaf Rag" as dixiehop, a musical collage which suggests a dyslexic Scott Joplin trading syncopations with some great-great-grandchildren in the Latin Quarter of Compton. It's complete with 78rpm scratching and a tongue-in-cheek reference to "Fascinating Rhythm" that serves as a jumping-off point for an open-ended Mwandishi style jam. One is left with the sense of an unlikely accord between ragtime, freebop and hip-hop.

Still, for all the contemporary accoutrements, the musical foundation of Sonic Trance is unmistakably jazz, both in origin and in execution - though clearly Payton's band does not represent the perspective of a stone cold bebopper. Their contrasting versions of "Fela 1" and "Fela 2" are not so far removed from either Nigerian high life, Afro-Cuban jazz or the modal vamping of post-Coltrane types such as trumpeter Freddie Hubbard on Red Clay and Straight Life. Then there's the Ornettish groove and deconstruction of "Blu Hays", where the spatial colors of electric keyboards morph into a full-throated acoustic grand, and the rhythm section really lays into the basic 4/4 pulse of jazz just in case you thought they were jiving. "Séance" is an open-ended ballad with a loopy polyrhythmic underpinning that wouldn't sound out of place on an Art Ensemble of Chicago session, as Payton processes his trumpet to achieve an almost chordal effect. It's like listening to a confluence of ethnic rhythms and hip-hop blaring through a wall of boom boxes as the train pulls into the elevated platform at 125th and Park in Harlem. Payton uses wah-wah pedals, echo, harmonic doublers, compression and distortion to alter the sound of his trumpet and simulate an electric guitar's tonality. Though this extension on the horn's natural vocal qualities certainly has its roots in the recordings of Miles and Don Ellis (and farther back, to saxophonists such as Eddie Harris and even Sonny Stitt), Payton employs such effects in a very painterly, very non-Miles manner. He effectively hot rods his trumpet on "Tantric" though rhythmically, the doubling up of the drum/percussion part does put me in mind of Miles Pangaea band and the late Weather Report. So it's not some empty gimmick - it's part of the tradition.

What helps make this recording so convincing is the input of engineer-producer James Nichols. He functions like a cinematographer or the fifth Beatle, affording Payton and the Sonic Trance band a huge, live acoustic to play with, shifting aural perspective through variations on hard and soft focus, close-ups and crane shots, stereo fades and panning effects, digital colorations, and a creative admixture of ambient and acoustic space. The impact of this sonic canvas demonstrates what jazz musicians are capable of when given sufficient studio time to supercharge their spontaneous instincts, employing all the technical accoutrements of the modern recording studio so routinely deployed by pop musicians.

Nicholas Payton is going to catch a lot of grief from my more missionary position-oriented colleagues. Considering how far out on a limb the trumpeter's taken things, he's fair game though. Still, from my vantage point, Sonic Trance does precisely what jazz is periodically supposed to do - reassess and recycle the tradition while drawing contemporary elements of dance rhythms and popular music into its orbit. Sonic Trance honors the roots and fruits of the tradition, yet reflects the point of view of young men in touch with their surroundings. It's a full-throttle audiophile production that offers a compelling roadmap as to how disparate cultures and contrasting musical approaches might yet intermingle and interact. And it does so without lessening the impact or denigrating the contributions of those iconic figures who inspired so many of us to become jazz musicians in the first place.