Out of the blues

Nicholas Payton owes much of his musical language to the legacy of such blues masters as John Mayall; both perform at the Caesarea Jazz Festival.

June 2, 2010 09:45
4 minute read.
Nicholas Payton, a lover of great music

Nicholas Payton 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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This year’s Caesarea Jazz Festival (June 3-5) represents something of a break from tradition – both in terms of music per se, and in terms of the event program. For its first five years, the festival, which takes place in the esthetically blessed surroundings of the preserved, polished and restored ancient Crusader ramparts, stuck to early jazz styles, primarily swing and ragtime. This year the event is under new artistic management and the genre dial has swung sharply away to others musical climes, including the blues, bebop and ethnically seasoned music.

The two big draws from abroad are veteran blues master John Mayall and New Orleans-born jazz trumpeter Nicholas Payton. “Legend” is an epithet that is often thrown into marketing mixes just to draw the consumers’ eye and purse, however Mayall certainly warrants that description. Now in his seventies, the British-born, singer-guitarist-harpist, was among those responsible for reviving the flagging fortunes of the blues back in the ’60s, following in the able footsteps of other British pioneers such as Cyril Davies and the redoubtable Alexis Korner. The blues had been marginalized in its original homeland of the United States until the likes of Mayall, and later fellow Brits Peter Green and Eric Clapton, helped remind Americans of their own roots music.

Although he belongs to a different generation, it may be argued that the 37-year-old Payton is also a beneficiary of Mayall and his ilk’s sterling revivalist work. With his New Orleans background, one presumes the blues – the substructure of jazz – heavily informs Payton’s approach to music.

“I actually consider myself a blues musician,” says the trumpeter.

Although the average jazz fan readily identifies with the genre’s accepted title, many purveyors of the music frown on its use. “Actually, I’m not too sure what jazz is,” he says, adding a seemingly enigmatic line that is proffered by many of his professional counterparts. “I don’t look at it as styles, genres and categories. That is something the human mind does to make things more easily digestible. I’m a lover of great music.”

PAYTON COMES from a musical family and, from very early childhood, was enraptured by his father’s exploits on bass and once even on a gargantuan sousaphone. Despite the fact that New Orleans and its environs are generally considered the birthplace of blues and jazz, Payton says he did not specifically home in on the two styles. “I was drawn to music, period,” he states emphatically.

Mentored by two New Orleans jazz masters (Clyde Kerr Jr. at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and Ellis Marsalis at the University of New Orleans), Payton starting playing music at the tender age of 4 and emerged on the New York scene in the early ’90s when he was still in his teens. He soon hooked up with fellow New Orleans native – and Jazz at Lincoln Center artistic director – Wynton Marsalis, and for some years was a regular fixture feature at the institution.

Payton embarked on a speedy learning curve, sharing bandstands with senior, established stars of the jazz firmament, including drummer Elvin Jones. That, says Payton, was a formative experience. He especially benefited from “the level of consistency that separates someone of Elvin’s masterful skill from everyone else. Getting to witness him play every night under different circumstances, every performance was at least masterful. And then, on some nights, it went beyond that. As much as a powerful force that he was, he was as sensitive as well, and a great listener and a great follower, which is a common attribute among great leaders.”

Over the years, Payton has alternated between purely acoustic settings and electrically embellished ones. The trumpeter says that this is not the result of any calculated approach – rather a matter of just going with the flow. “I don’t really consider it. It is the musician that creates the music. An instrument is just an instrument. It’s the person behind the instrument that creates the music. It doesn’t matter what it is.”

Payton is similarly laissez faire about what he will be offering us at his Caesarea show, although he did give some pointers. “I don’t know what we’ll be playing. I’ll see how I feel. That will be dictated by the energy in the space I will be playing. The people are guaranteed to hear some music from my [last] album Into The Blue and perhaps some previews from my upcoming release, Bitches.”

Mayall plays in Caesarea on June 3 at 10 p.m. Payton’s gig is on the following day at 10:30 p.m.

Elsewhere in the three-day festival lineup, local slots will be filled by celebrated vocalist Noa with jazz-world music pianist David Dorantes (June 5, 7:30 p.m.). At 10 p.m. they will be followed by French-Israeli singer-songwriter Keren Ann, pianist-vocalist Shlomi Shaban and jazz trumpeter Avishai Cohen.

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