A super talent like trumpeter Nicholas Payton could have easily coasted through a long, successful career by safely resting on his impressive laurels and never once rocking the boat musically or socially, thus remaining securely assured of achieving a prominent niche for himself.
Just how patently powerful Payton is will be demonstrated this weekend as the Grammy Award-winning brass maestro presents his convention-defying, yet often groove- and soul-soaked, swinging, always smart, original brand of music Friday and Saturday nights, January 17 and January 18, at Old Lyme’s Side Door Jazz Club, the red-hot nightspot and live jazz harbor on the Connecticut shoreline.
Coasting along safely and blandly just isn’t in Payton’s nature. The trumpeter, who’s at home in every configuration from intimate combo to symphonic orchestra, leads his trio, with downbeat time set at 8:30 for both concerts in the club at 85 Lyme St. He’s joined by his longtime collaborators bassist Vincente Archer and drummer Marcus Gilmore, a tight, interactive trio that can generate more ideas and even a bigger sound than big bands six times its size. Doors open at 7:30 pm. Tickets: $35. Information: sidedoorjazz.com and (860) 434-0886.
Playing it safe isn’t an option for Payton, even though success did come early and amply to him with a winning string of acclaimed albums on Verve in the 1990s, beginning with From This Moment On and including his Grammy award-winning collaboration with the venerable trumpeter Doc Cheatham, entitled Doc Cheatham & Nicholas Payton.
Along with his obvious musical gifts, Payton’s artistic and personal DNA also comes complete with a restless, powerful creative urge to keep evolving, to keep striving after some increasingly higher standard, some new, utopian Payton Place waiting to be developed. It’s a quest that, apparently, is never satisfied.
A personal holy grail, it demands that, as a musician, he must always be challenged by something new. As a writer, he must always challenge too easily-accepted social beliefs and pop pieties, especially those rooted in falsehoods, pandering commercialism, or media hype. It doesn't matter whether he’s commenting on a phenomenon as ephemeral as pop figure Miley Cyrus, or a topic as substantial as United States foreign policy for being overly aggressive, or President Obama for being overly cautious about rectifying social ills and injustices here at home.
Along with Payton's intellectual critical traits, which he can express with articulate ferocity, comes his respect for the past, a love for elders, a reverence for ancestry, an awareness of and an appreciation of tradition tempered by his existential urge to be creative in the present moment, while simultaneously keeping his eye on the future. That kind of Janus-like vision -- one that exists in the present while simultaneously looking to both the past and the future -- tolerates neither aesthetic fakery nor such social ills as racism or sexism, and eviscerates them all verbally.
A man of many parts, the now 40-year-old, one-time New Orleans wunderkind is not just a trumpet titan, nor just yet another superstar rising from the Crescent City. He’s all that, but also a master juggler of a dazzling array of pursuits and interests.
Among his recent major triumphs dating from 2012, for example, is his ambitious, full orchestral work, The Black American Symphony, and his remarkable live concert performance and original, contemporary take on the iconic Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaboration, Sketches of Spain.
Payton performed Sketches with a 19-piece ensemble comprised of 15 brass and woodwinds and even a harpist, all tapped from the Swiss Sinfonieorchester Basel under the baton of conductor Dennis Russell Davies. His Side Door trio mates, Archer and Gilmore, plus percussionist Daniel Sadownick, also accompanied him on that demanding venture. This was an especially risky giant step, since he dared to reinterpret a sacred text in the jazz canon, a hallowed work not open to revisionist exegesis. That same year, Payton, who’s also an exemplary businessman, somehow also managed to launch his own label, BMF Records, with the release of his steaming album, #BAM Live at the Bohemian Caverns.
A brilliant multi-instrumentalis, in a classic act of Paytonic prestidigitation he can simultaneously solo on trumpet while backing himself on Fender Rhodes, he’s also a composer, arranger, singer, bandleader, arch enemy of musical clichés, and verbal scourge of historical platitudes and racist myths.
Payton is a take-no-prisoner blogger who can enrage or enlighten, as he did a couple years ago with a bombshell blog manifesto in which he declared, ex cathedra, that jazz died in 1959. "Jazz is a label that was forced on the musicians," he wrote. "The musicians should’ve never accepted that idea," he added, assailing the history of the use and abuse of the word jazz itself. Not only is jazz a patronizing word of unsavory, racist origin, he asserted, but also one that historically has been employed as a repressive tool to exploit the black creators of the music, which he prefers to call Black American Music. "Jazz is a marketing ploy that serves an elite few," he wrote. "It’s a marketing idea. Jazz is a brand. Jazz ain’t music, it’s marketing and bad marketing at that."
In the bold critical tradition of other great dissenting figures such as Charles Mingus, Max Roach, and Archie Shepp, Payton speaks his mind in a sharp, candid way, very much in the classic American grain of literary protest. At times, his words are reminiscent of the scathing social commentary that the late, great African-American writer/critic Amiri Baraka infused so powerfully into his essays on black music. Baraka's bombshells of several decades ago also disturbed and enraged some readers, while, no doubt, inspiring others with their fresh, incendiary perspectives on cultural history.
Putting his sharp pen aside, Payton, with a a little bit of help from his two eloquent friends, Archer and Gilmore, speaks volumes of musical wisdom with his trumpet this weekend at the Side Door Jazz Club, which has swung open a whole new vista for all fans within driving distance of the bustling shoreline jazz mecca.
Hazeltine Time at Yale
Yale School of Music Professor Willie Ruff, the noted music maven, founder, artistic director and eminence grise behind Yale’s distinguished Ellington Jazz Series, regularly presents a wide spectrum of premier jazz stylists without compromising Duke Ellington’s personal credo that the art of swing is an eternal verity for the music. Right in line with Duke’s pre post-modernist aesthetic of the meaning of soul, grit and groove is the hard-swinging, deeply expressive modern jazz pianist David Hazeltine, who leads his trio at 8:00 pm Thursday, January 16, at the series’ classy roost in Morse Recital Hall at Sprague Hall, 470 College Street in New Haven.
If you love Cedar Walton and Tommy Flanagan, you’re sure to dig Hazeltine, a charter member of One for All, the blue-ribbon, hard bop sextet featuring, among other worthies, West Hartford’s Steve Davis on trombone. Hazeltine is joined by two superb, simpatico swingers, the redoubtable double bassist George Mraz, who doubles on alto saxophone, and drummer Billy Drummond. Tickets start at $20; $10 with student ID. Box office: (203) 432-4158.
Innovative String Theoretician
Michael Coppola, a virtuoso guitarist and innovative guitar designer, performs on his celebrated nine-string Hydra guitar at 8:00 pm Saturday, January 18, for the Connecticut Guitar Society at Asylum Hill Congregational Church, 814 Asylum Avenue in Hartford.
Besides basking in ovations at national guitar shows, Coppola’s many noted performances include appearances at the Montreal Jazz Festival, New York’s Blue Note and The Iridium (as a guest of guitar god Les Paul), and at the National Guitar Museum, where he jammed in duos with the likes of Gene Bertoncini and Howard Alden. Tickets: $20, general admission; $15, CGS members. Information: ctguitar.org and (860) 249-1132.
Maxine Martin’s Musical Mosaic
Celebrating her recent album, Fragments and Colors of Me, singer/songwriter, tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Maxine Carol Martin displays her wide-ranging talents at 3:00 pm Sunday, January 19, in the free Baby Grand Jazz series at the Hartford Public Library, 500 Main Street.
Featuring eleven original selections, including the title track, among her disc’s dozen diverse pieces, “Fragments” is a mosaic of the Hartford-based artist’s personal muse and reflective, spirited, sometimes spiritual views on life. Her first-rate supporting cast features such Nutmeg notables as pianist Warren Byrd, bassist Sinan Bakir, bassist Matt Dwonszyk and drummer Cemre Dogan.
Martin, who grew up in Connecticut, lived and worked for more than 20 productive years in New York City where she was an active member of International Woman of Jazz, performing with such noted IWJ members as the heroically pioneering woman jazz bassist/vocalist Carline Ray and vocalists Lenora Zenzalai Helm and Judi Silvano. While performing and teaching in the Big Apple, Martin appeared at such venues as The Bitter End, The Nuyorican Poet’s Café and Harlem’s historic Lenox Lounge, and with such noted musicians as drummer Charli Persip.
Martin earned her BA in music at the University of South Florida, and, while a music education major at the Hartt School at the University of Hartford, audited classes with the celebrated alto saxophonist/educator Jackie McLean and his colleague, saxophonist Paul Jeffries.
Martin, who crosses all genres from jazz and classical to rock and folk, regularly performs throughout the state with the four musicians on her disc, as well as with such Connecticut-based musicians as vocalists Margaux Hayes and Nicki Mathis, percussionist Abu Alvin Carter Sr., drummer Mike Augeri and bassist Paul Fuller. Concert information: hplct.org and (860) 695-6295.
Miracle on Main Street
Continuing in its weekly Sunday role as The Miracle on Main Street, the admission-free Baby Grand Jazz series broke its all-time attendance record January 5 as a crowd of 600 packed the Hartford Public Library to hear violin virtuoso Meg Okura and a contingent from her Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble launch the series’ eleventh season in the downtown library’s picturesque atrium.
Although turnouts were anemic during Baby Grand’s imperiled infancy and early childhood, over the past few years the now robust series, which runs through April, has seen its attendance figures skyrocket through the atrium ceiling. Last year, the 3:00 pm Sunday matinee series, which featured 16 weekly concerts, drew a record-breaking total of 5,000, a virtually miraculous mega-figure by jazz standards.
Delighted by the huge turnouts, HPL CEO Matt Poland said the series’ soaring figures are “a testament to its tremendous value in our community, and its popularity among fans of great live music from throughout the state.”
In another groundbreaking innovation for the 2014 season's opening day, the Okura concert was streamed-live into Billings Forge’s Kitchen at HPL’s café space fronting Main Street. Library spokesperson Rachel Gary observed that overflow concert attendees enjoyed the live-streaming show along with the café’s specialty drinks and baked goods.
For those who enjoy snacking while savoring steaming jazz, The Kitchen, which is usually closed on weekends, will be open from 2:00 to 5:00 pm on Sundays through January. There’s a possibility that it might extend its special Sunday openings through the end of the series to accommodate the jazz-loving café society crowd.
Cantata Honors Dr. King
In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the About You Trio presents an original seven-part cantata, whose theme is slavery, at 3:00 pm Saturday, January 18, in yet another free event in HPL’s atrium.
The work, Living Water, alternates between music and narration as it depicts the bitter struggles of an enslaved African-American mother and her son. Jolie Rocke Brown, the versatile, classically trained diva who easily crosses over from opera to jazz and gospel, is featured both as vocalist and arranger. Her collaborators are Angela D. Griffin, trio founder and flutist, and Laurie J. MacAlpine, composer/arranger and pianist.
Delta Force Takes No Prisoners
Firepower abounds as the fearless trumpeter Josh Evans leads his take-no-prisoners quintet at the “Jazz Mondays” series at 8 p.m. Monday, January 20, at Black-eyed Sally’s, 350 Asylum St., Hartford. Evans’ delta strike force team features trombonist Steve Davis, pianist Warren Byrd, bassist Alex Tremblay, and drummer Jonathan Barber. An open jam session follows the first set. There’s a $5 cover. Information: charteroakcenter.org and blackeyedsallys.com.
Please submit press releases on upcoming jazz events at least two weeks before the publication date to firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments and suggestions left below are also most welcome.