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Cass' Interview with Nicholas Payton

Cass' interview with
Warner Bros. Jazz Artist,
NICHOLAS PAYTON

Copyright Cassandra Henry, 2004

Louis Armstrong also said, "If you have to ask what Jazz is, you'll never know." Well, of course, I had to ask Nick that very question. Interviewing sounds so formal because my conversation with Nick was more like two friends discussing 'Whuz Up' with each other, while sitting out on the lakefront eating a couple of pounds of crawfish.

Cass:
Hey Nicholas. Thanks for agreeing to do this interview.

Nicholas P:
No problem.

Cass:
I'll try to keep this short, but you know folks from New Orleans, once we get to talking 'bout ya mama and dem, well. . .

Nicholas P:
[Laughing]. I can certainly relate to that.

Cass:
Let me explain a couple of things to you. After I received Sonic Trance from Warner Bros. and I listened to it for the first time, I’ll be honest with you, I wasn't feeling it. Grant it, I was trying to listen to it while I was driving around running errands with my 18-year-old nephew (whose into rock and rap). So, after I got home and settled down, I played it again, and for the next couple of days, I played it non-stop. And, as luck would have it, I started digging it. But here's the funny thing. I think I listened to it so much that I started hearing it in my head as if I were plugged into the CD like a character. Is that what you were trying to accomplish -- get people to listen to it over and over again -- because it started to keep me up at night?

Nicholas P:
[Laughing]. Right, I guess that's part of the transient effect I was going for. There are basically 4 or 5 melodic themes throughout the whole CD, which I developed into different incantations.

Cass:
It kinda freaked me out because later in the week when I was in Home Depot looking for tile, all of a sudden, I started humming the melody from "Cannabis Leaf", and the track where the trumpet repeats a high pitch beep.

Nicholas P:
And then it echoes?

Cass:
That's the one. Which track is that?

Nicholas P:
"Velvet Handcuffs".

Cass:
Right, "Velvet Handcuffs". Was that written for your wife?

Nicholas P:
I won't divulge that information. [Laughing]. Sonic Trance is basically like a movie. It was my intent to present the material in such a fashion that it would be digested from the beginning to the end.

Cass:
I always listen to a movie's score because it helps set the tone. So it's really funny you would say that because there were certain tracks where I imagined Will Smith in a chase scene running from the bad guys [like his character in Enemy of the State]. Or, Will being injected with some type of drug and him waking up in a psychedelic-type haze. Is that what you were going for? [Okay, I have a vivid imagination].

Nicholas P:
Yes, definitely. I wanted to create an experience and have the music evoke moods instead of playing tunes.

Cass:
That's exactly what it did because I sensed the highs and lows. High in the sense that there were certainly melodies that made me feel happy, and then all of a sudden, I got depressed, as if there were some type of impending turmoil.

Nicholas P:
Yeah, I wanted all those emotions captured in the music because that's life's dichotomy. Setting up the transition was also very important, not only the tunes themselves, but also how it feels listening to them from track to track. It was really important to me to really exploit the idea that I was making a record and making sure that I used certain things that were available to me that I could not use in a live performance.

Cass:
Listening to Sonic Trance, I also saw vivid colors. Almost like an artist splashing paint on a canvas. A bit weird, but true. When you sat down and put this concept together, did you see colors along with the music?

Nicholas P:
There were so many different aspects that I was going for when I was putting it together. Just in talking to you or even when I listen to it again, there are still some new things that I discover and learn from it. The whole idea was to be open to new ideas and not have any preconceived notions of what I wanted to do. That way, when people listen to it, they will have their own impression. So, there was no real idea of what I wanted people to think when they sat back and listened to it. It's interesting, that every person I talk to, the opinions are so varied. In some way, that’s kinda what I was hoping for.

Cass:
That’s so true because, like I said, I played it over and over again and every time I listened to it, I heard something totally unique -- from, African rhythms to classical style. Or, a combination of techo/fusion to an almost hippie-like melody. Did Sonic Trance naturally develop into that or did you want to make a real eclectic sound as opposed to one particular style?

Nicholas P:
I wanted to create something that embodied everything that has been a part of my musical development, from the beginning to the point of the recording.

Cass:
Exactly.

Nicholas P:
Everything from growing up in New Orleans, playing in brass bands, to hanging out in the French Quarters, and doing hip-hop gigs, rock gigs, straight ahead jazz gigs, and then many different types of jazz music that I played -- every musical experience that I had, I included it all. I didn’t want to exclude anything just by saying this is an electric project or this is a jazz project. For me to categorize it would have limited it artistically. I just wanted to be creatively open to anything that came as a result of us playing together. I structured the tunes so that the music would take a completely different shape based on what the vibe was each time we performed.

Cass:
Do you like all types of music or is there a particular genre that you prefer?

Nicholas P:
No, not really. I enjoy all kinds of music.

Cass:
So how do you define jazz?

Nicholas P:
Ummmm.

Cass:
I know. It’s like somebody asking me how do I define poetry.

Nicholas P:
I just think it’s an art form that allows musicians to simultaneously create and compose music. At the same time it allows the listener to make his or her own impression of what it is they're listening to. I think it’s the only art form that allows for that. As opposed to being a painter or a poet you are working under your own guise and hoping that people understand it. With jazz, the musicians are all doing the same thing, at the same time, so the trick becomes how well can we do this collectively.

Cass:
I played the first track, Sonic Trance, quite a bit because I visualized Jill Scott doing her spoken word thang to it. Then I found myself listening to "Velvet Handcuffs" a lot because the title reminded me of Janet Jackson’s Velvet Rope CD, and of course, the implied sexual connotation. Then "Cannibis Leaf", which the title itself is self-explanatory. Next, there's "Two Mexicans", that was so quirky. How did you get to that?

Nicholas P:
To tell you the truth, "Two Mexicans" had a lot to do with my wife because she's Mexican. Because of her, I've been listening to a lot of Mariachi music. I thought it would be kinda cool to incorporate it into a jazz CD, because I don't think it's been done, at least not in this context.

Cass:
Your thank you to your wife, Cecillia, in your acknowledgments really caught my eye. You said, "You are the embodiment of everything that is beautiful. You complete me. I am forever yours." Is there one particular cut, besides "Two Mexicans", which reflects all of those things that make her complete you?

Nicholas P:
Honestly, her presence in my life really allowed me to get to this point.

Cass:
That's really sweet. You also thank lots of local folks, including Philip Manuel, Wynton Marsalis, and students at NOCCA (New Orleans Center for Creative Arts). How were they instrumental in helping you with this specific CD?

Nicholas P:
The NOCCA media department let me use their facilities and the students came in and watched while James, the engineer, and I mixed it.

Cass:
Back in 1997, you were only 24 when you received your first Grammy with the late Doc Cheatham, for Best Jazz Instrumental Solo, for Stardust. How was that collaboration and working with him?

Nicholas P:
It was wonderful!

Cass:
I bet.

Nicholas P:
Not only was Doc a brilliant musician, but he was also a very warm, kind and giving person. I really miss him. I'm just glad I had the opportunity to work with someone with such legendary status. He played and worked with countless musicians like Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Billy Holliday, and Cab Calloway, to mention a few. I'm just a recipient of that wellspring of information.

Cass:
Initially, I'm sure there were a lot of detractors when Sonic Trance was first released. So after you received this recent Grammy nomination for Sonic Trance, you were probably saying to those haters, "Now, take that!!"

Nicholas P:
You're right. It really did feel good!!! For a moment, I had my doubts because no one was listening to it. So the nomination was like a validation for me.

Cass:
You were up against people like Randy Brecker, David Sanborn, The Crusaders, and The Yellowjackets.

Nicholas P:
Pretty tough competition. Especially since the nomination came as a big surprise.

Cass:
Did you attend the Grammy's?

Nicholas P:
Yeah, I went.

Cass:
How was it?

Nicholas P:
It was great. I've attended the Grammy's a couple of times. It was great to see and meet all the people you listen to or hear about.

Cass:
They say, "Practice, makes perfect." How often do you practice?

Nicholas P:
At this point, I practice everyday.

Cass:
What do you mean, by "at this point"?

Nicholas P:
Over a period of several years, like in my 20's, I didn't really practice at all.

Cass:
Really?

Nicholas P:
I was working and playing a lot. Now that my gigs are more spread out, I'm trying to get to something more personal. I believe a certain level of control over the instrument requires more practice.

Cass:
How and what do you practice?

Nicholas P:
Just fundamental things. But, the better relationship I cultivate with my instrument, allows greater freedom of expression. The more inflection and control I have, the easier the flow of ideas become and it's less of a struggle to play. It's those subtleties, as opposed to just playing music, that's very important to me, at this time.

Cass:
How did you hookup with Warner Bros?

Nicholas P:
Warner Bros. was more suited for the direction I was headed.

Cass:
And, I bet they were pretty happy with your Grammy nomination?

Nicholas P:
You bet.

Cass:
I noticed you appeared in a couple of movies, specifically in 1996 with Harry Belafonte, in Kansas City. How was that experience and did you get to meet him?

Nicholas P:
This was the only movie I appeared in. Belafonte is a real cool cat and it was a lot of fun hanging out on the set with him and all the other musicians.

Cass:
You're performing at this year's New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Is this your first time performing or how many times have you participated?

Nicholas P:
Oh nooooo. I've been performing at the Jazz Festival since I was nine years old.

Cass:
Are you serious?

Nicholas P:
Oh yeah!

Cass:
Will the fellas playing with you on Sonic Trance be performing with you?

Nicholas P:
They won't be performing with me at this year's Jazz Fest because we played last year.

Cass:
So are you playing solo?

Nicholas P:
This year, I'll be playing some straight ahead jazz with some younger guys. Even though there's a wealth of young talented musicians out here, there are limited opportunities for them to showcase their talents. I want to do my part and create a forum to let these young guys really play and travel. Plus, being around some younger folks will really energize me in a different way.

Cass:
Now you sound like you're an old man, with that "younger folks".

Nicholas P:
You know, when you turn 30, you start thinking about the world differently.

Cass:
How did you come up with the titles for each track?

Nicholas P:
I like fun titles. Innuendos. Sometimes they don't really mean anything.

Cass:
What about Sonic Trance -- sonic being fast-paced or audible sounds?

Nicholas P:
In terms of Sonic Trance, I was thinking of something that reflected the "in the now" moment. I wanted the music to have a certain healing quality and I wanted the sounds from the group to reverberate throughout the room to uplift people. A lot of music today is geared toward people escaping themselves and their situations. I wanted to create something that made people deal with themselves, but in a positive way.

Cass:
So, what's next?

Nicholas P:
Right now, I'm on the road with the group called the SS Jazz, which stands for The San Francisco Modern Jazz Collective. We're playing the music of Ornette Coleman, and the original pieces each member composed. After this, I start with the new band from the Jazz Fest, and I'm really just conceptualizing and thinking about what my next move will be. I think Sonic Trance was my first step in trying to create music that has more of a contemporary edge.

Cass:
A contemporary edge perfectly describes Sonic Trance.

Nicholas P:
Cool.

Cass:
You're a Libra, right?

Nicholas P:
Yes.

Cass:
The scales represent your zodiac sign. How do you balance your career and family life?

Nicholas P:
It's hard, but it's something that requires effort and discipline. You also have to be very mindful of every situation and circumstance because you can get caught up in pursuing things and not really appreciating the "here and now" moments.

Cass:
I totally agree with you on that. As well as appreciating what you already have.

Nicholas P:
Exactly!

Cass:
Well, this has certainly been one of those "here and now" moments I have truly enjoyed! And, so much for keeping this interview short.

Nicholas P:
[Laughing]. No problem. It's always good talking with people from home.

Cass:
Wishing you continued success, and I look forward to seeing and "hearing" you at the Jazz Fest. Stay Blessed Nicholas!


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