Photo by Adam Weiss

In the jazz wars — the conservationists vs. the innovators, the preservationists vs. the eclecticists — we’ve always known where trumpeter Nicholas Payton stood. Born and raised in Louis Armstrong’s hometown, New Orleans, Payton was playing traditional jazz with a brass band on the Big Easy’s streets by the age of 12, and from that point on, his straight-ahead course has seemed firmly set. Encouraged by conservator-in-chief Wynton Marsalis, trained in part by Marsalis’ father, Ellis, and blessed with both prodigious hard-bop chops and a wonderfully warm, ebullient sound, Payton rose quickly through the mainstream sideman ranks. By the time he cut his first disc as a leader, 1994’s From This Moment (Verve), he was already tagged in many corners as Satchmo’s rightful heir, an Armstrong for our modern times. That same year, a live album alongside the venerable Dixieland legend Doc Cheatham — for which the then-21-year-old Payton received a Grammy nomination — seemed nothing short of a ceremonious transfer of the trad torch.

Yes, we’ve always known where Nicholas Payton stood — until now. In September, with his first Warner Bros. disc, Payton threw us a sharp curve. Gone was his acoustic sextet, one of the most dependable of post-bop units for the last six years; gone were the sparkling interpretations of standards; and gone was any assurance that we’d know what to expect from this gifted young horn player. Instead we have Sonic Trance, an electrified, spaced-out, effects-laden, genre-bending, amorphous dreamscape of a disc where ragtime yields to hip-hop, ambiance triumphs over structure, and eclecticism is king. It’s a healthy change, says Payton, and perhaps overdue.

“I felt like I was getting into a rut, creatively,” says Payton over the phone. “I knew I was nearing an end after my last recording [the 2001 Armstrong tribute, Dear Louis]. I needed to change the way I made records and the concepts I was dealing with.” Yet, says Payton, the choice to electrify and distort was not made arbitrarily. “I’m not interested in playing in any particular idioms or styles. This project is about trying to define my voice through my experience. And if that be electronics — I grew up in an era heavily into electronic music — or more groove-oriented, or funk-tinged, or R&B, it’s because I’m trying to embrace things that are very much a part of me and my era, and are distinctive of my experience.”

Payton says he conceived Sonic Trance in cinematic terms. “The key to this record was how I sequenced the material, what feeling was imbued in the transitions from one to the next. My intention was for the album to be ingested as a complete body of work, as opposed to a selection of tunes. And that’s the way I programmed it, so that it listens straight through. You don’t get the breaks, the separations. So the tunes are more like scenes in a movie, as opposed to pieces that may not have any relativity from one to the next.”

Sonic Trance was recorded over five days, a remarkable span for a jazz album. “It’s like an eternity,” says Payton. “I’ve done jazz records in two hours. But I wanted to let the music breathe. I think the stress of getting that superior take in a day or so puts a creative damper on the recording session. And I think by creating such a relaxed atmosphere, there was a certain level of freedom and exploration in the music that quite often doesn’t get captured.” That also helps explain the record’s organic feel; the band cultivate their morphing ideas with the unhurried ease of midsummer farmers tending their crops.

The music continues to evolve in performance, says Payton. “It’s completely open. I wanted to create music that allowed us to spontaneously shape the mood, the tempo, the groove, the harmony, on a nightly basis. The only concept for this band is that there is no defined concept.” Nor a set list, he adds. “The whole idea is to make experimentations in the moment, and that comes from group interplay and really reacting and listening to the vibes we’re giving off, to be open to how it feels at the time.”

Where he might go from here is anybody’s guess. “All I know is that I’m happy with what I’m doing right now. When I feel I can’t be creative in what I’m doing — when the time calls for it — I guess the other thing will be there.”

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