‘Relax’ with the Nicholas Payton Trio

Nicholas Payton performs at the seventh annual Jammy awards at the Theater at Madison Square Garden on May 7, 2008, in New York.
Nicholas Payton performs at the seventh annual Jammy awards at the Theater at Madison Square Garden on May 7, 2008, in New York.

Ask any Miles Davis fan for an opinion on which albums were the trumpeter's masterworks, and you're probably going to get a variety of fervently expressed answers. That's a testimonial not just to his musical genius, but also to the wide range of his curiosity.

Nicholas Payton, the New Orleans trumpeter whose name resonates with the same artistic and critical approval of fellow hometowners like Wynton Marsalis, Irvin Mayfield and Terence Blanchard, is a huge Miles Davis devotee. One of the cool things about his appreciation, though, is he can actually act on it in ways we mortals could never imagine.

For example, Payton's latest album, recorded live in one concert performance with Switzerland's elite Sinfonieorchester Basel, is a complete recitation of Davis' "Sketches of Spain." The 1960 masterpiece was a conceptual vision by Davis with arranger Gil Evans - a gorgeous homage to Spanish folk and classical music.

That Payton would set out to perform "Sketches of Spain" - played in its entirety, as opposed to the original, multi-take studio sessions - is an astonishing labor of love and physical strength.

Some might ask why a successful musician like Payton would "replicate" another artist's album. But the vocabulary of jazz is rooted in the timeless interpretations of its songbook - works that are constantly reshaped and reimagined by succeeding generations of musicians, even as many of those same musicians continue to add to the repertoire by composing new music.

Payton's take on "Sketches" is a thrilling and heartfelt derivation, infused and characterized by his own stylistic and melodic talents and techniques. This is not surprising since Payton has a vast catalog of his own memorable songs and albums. They include his "Black American Symphony," which he composed and performed as a companion piece to the "Sketches of Spain" experiment. In addition to Payton's recording of "Sketches of Spain," he also released a trio album last year called "#BAM - Live at Bohemian Caverns."

It's in this more intimate scale that the Nicholas Payton Trio - with bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Marcus Gilmore - comes to Old Lyme's Side Door Jazz Club for performances Friday and Saturday.

Earlier this week, the trumpeter answered questions via email. Here are excerpts.

Q. Until I heard your "Sketches of Spain," I don't think I was prepared for how much you could do to put your own stamp on the work without drastically altering the original melody lines. How much was improvised at the moment - or had you considered what you might bring to the piece before you started the performance?

A. "Whenever I approach a repertory work, the idea is that I bring something personal to the table. Otherwise, what's the point? Miles and Gil already did what they did with it, and no one can be better at them than them. If I felt I had nothing original to offer to the work, I wouldn't have touched it.

"I went into it fully aware of what liberties I could take with respect to the piece. The trick is to see yourself within it and perhaps highlight some things that are unexpected. At all points of the performance, I wanted the listener to be aware that what they were hearing was in 2013, not 1959. That was the main impetus behind the delivery and approach."

Q. You've described the endurance required to doing the entire "Sketches" in one continuous performance as similar to running a marathon. To that end, did you effectively have to train for it? I don't mean by repeated rehearsals, but did you literally undergo conditioning or diet or lifestyle changes in anticipation of the demands?

A. "I'd been training for it for almost 40 years at that point. You can often learn more away from your instrument than on it. Everything in life is training and conditioning if you maintain an awareness around what you're doing.

"I don't look at what I do onstage any different than what I do offstage. If you're in the habit of always being tapped in, it's not a matter of conjuring that energy when you need it for an artistic endeavor. You're always there. When the pilot light stays lit, heat is always at your immediate disposal. It also helped that I played the piece four years prior to the recording, so I was familiar with the pacing and landscape."

Q: You grew up loving artists like Jaco Pastorius and Herbie Hancock. Now, given your affection for Miles, would you ever think of doing any of his rock-fusion stuff like "Bitches Brew" or "In a Silent Way"? Maybe not in album form, but as a sort of live exercise?

A: "Some people say my album 'Sonic Trance' reminds them of 'Bitches Brew.' I have certainly been influenced by that album, but I wouldn't go as far as to say my album sounds like Miles. We went in a lot of different areas from his recording, as we did on 'Sketches.'

"And I would never try to pattern myself after someone else's style at this point of my development. I'm much too old for that. What happens for me is that I get inspired to find something as special within myself as they found within them."

Q. What can folks expect from the Trio in Old Lyme?

A. "I would prefer that you come with no expectations other than to let the music guide you. If you've worked hard and you've decided to treat yourself or are being treated to a night of music at the Side Door, this is your time not to have to think about anything. Just relax and enjoy the experience."


Who: Nicholas Payton Trio

When: 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday (doors open 7:30 p.m.)

Where: Side Door Jazz Club, Old Lyme Inn, 85 Lyme St., Old Lyme

How much: $35

For more information: (860) 434-0886, thesidedoorjazz.com, nicholaspayton.com


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