Tag Archives: Nicholas Payton

A Few Thoughts on “B.A.M.” and “Jazz”

I’m sure that no one who reads this blog is unfamiliar with the lively debate that’s recently transpired in social media in response to Nicholas Payton’s declaration on his blog that jazz died in 1959, and that the music that he and his peer group are playing should henceforth be described as “Black American Music.” He’s followed this salvo with a series of fascinating posts, erudite, impassioned, antagonistic, soulful, profane — just like his tonal personality. Last week, to offer a little context to anyone who’s interested, I posted an article that I wrote about NP in 2001 and the proceedings of a radio interview that we did in 1995. (By the way, some of the liveliest and most civil discussion has transpired on George Colligan’s superb blog, Jazz Truth.)

My own two cents is that, however rough the linguistic signifying, this is an extremely healthy dialogue. Whatever nomenclature you prefer  — “jazz,” “Great Black Music,” “BAM,” “Pan-American Music,” “creative music” — the music that emanates from the people of the African diaspora whatever the idiom, is about using notes and tones to tell a story, map identity, speak the truth. Why should we settle for anything less in the discourse about this abundant, vital, very-much-alive art form, one of the crown jewels of 20th and 21st culture?

As for Mr. Payton, he’s been a BMF for a very long time, latest evidence coming from that Victor Goines Quartet youtube from 1991 with Brian Blade on drums that was posted on Facebook yesterday. I’ve heard him destroy some of the best and brightest on several bandstands (though they held their own), and not one thing that he said about his abilities is incorrect. He is qualified to call his music whatever he chooses to.

In his most recent post, NP wrote, “With all due respect, until I hear Nate Chinen and Ben Ratliff sit in at Smalls and rip everybody in the club to pieces, nothing they say matters.”

Now, I wouldn’t put myself in Nate and Ben’s class, and I will never destroy anyone on the stage at Smalls or Cleopatra’s or anywhere.

But for what it’s worth, I’ve listened to jazz and its offshoots very seriously for a very long time, and talked with at length in public and private and written about many of its practitioners over the years, including NP. Although I’m not crazy about the term, I intend to keep using it.  If I had my druthers, I’d call the 2011 edition “Creolized American Music With African-American, Euro and Latin and Asian Elements Animated By Trans-African Aesthetics” (CAMWAAEALAAEABTAA…that rolls trippingly off the tongue, doesn’t it…).

I also don’t think the “colonialist” trope holds up…as Jeremy Pelt and Wallace Roney stated, the context has shifted from the original usage. Not sure how “Black American Music” denotes what NP is doing when he plays the shit out of “E.S.P.” or “Con Alma” or “Prototype” with a completely distinctive voice over a swinging, interactive rhythm section , as he did as a sideman on a recent recording that I’m writing liner notes for.  Should I think of these soulful, sophisticated, virtuosic declamations, each a grandmaster exposition in the art of improvising, in the same breath with, let’s say, L’il Wayne? With “The In Crowd”? (All respects to Ramsey Lewis.) With “The Signifying Monkey” (all respects to Dave Bartholomew) or the Dirty Dozen or the Wild Tchoupitoulas?  Don’t think so, though someone else might.  For me, these  solos place NP directly in the conversation with any of his trumpet influences. Any trumpet player under 30 will have to reckon with them. If this is “jazz,” the form sounds pretty alive to me.

But then, I’ll repeat that I think that “jazz” is the crown jewel of 20th and 21st century culture on the international playing field.  It’s a big umbrella, one that for me includes this component of NP’s musical production but also many other ways of “getting there,” from Jelly Roll to Anthony Braxton and Tim Berne and Jerry Gonzalez. It doesn’t adequately describe any single one of these musics, but I can’t think of anything better…except for CAMWAAEALAAEABTAA.

NP describes Bitches as a “post-Dilla Modern New Orleans album,” and, from one-off listens to five youtube clips (I don’t have a hardcopy, and I’m in the middle of a lot of writing assignments), that sounds about right.  I like each track. The lyrics are honest and poetic and deft. The production is spot-on. He plays all the instruments — drum-beats, basslines (love the groove on “Stole Your iPhone”), keyboard harmony, trumpet — at the highest level.  He interweaves jazz elements, sometimes explicitly, sometimes not, with other Black American music forms (second-line,  post-Grover soul jazz, urban/hip-hop, soul, Caribbean), each of which he obviously knows intimately. The rhythms are intoxicating. To my ears, a couple of tunes could use a little trimming, and I’m not sure if it’s Here, My Dear, but it’s pretty damn good. Congratulations to NP for putting his money — and his heart and soul — where his mouth is.

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A Jazziz Feature on Nicholas Payton From 2001

Although “never assume” is a motto I try to abide by, I would be surprised if anyone who checks out this way-station is unfamiliar with the latest firestorm that Nicholas Payton has combusted with his always thought-provoking blog with the statement that “jazz died in 1959.” I tend to agree with the notion that no art form is dead if best-and-brightest practitioners of the idiom continue to play it. But terminology is personal, and Nicholas stands in a line of world-historic artists — Max Roach, Duke Ellington, Roland Kirk, the Art Ensemble of Chicago — who take issue with the notion that “jazz” signifies the totality of musical production.

I’ve followed Nicholas’ own musical production with interest since he emerged on the international scene in the mid ’90s, and presented four or five interviews with him during my tenure at WKCR, beginning in 1995 (a Musicians Show from that year is posted at the bottom of the page). In 2001 I pitched and was given an opportunity by Jazziz to write a feature about him, which appears immediately below.

Nicholas Payton Article for Jazziz (2001):

On a muggy September Tuesday afternoon in a third-floor rehearsal studio nestled between the two bus terminals of Manhattan’s Port Authority, Nicholas Payton is running down a series of Duke Ellington small band transcriptions with a 10-piece unit culled from the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, including tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano and singer Diane Reeves.  It’s two nights before opening night of a 23-concert tour called Duke in Small Doses, and Payton is guest musical director for the project.  He’s dressed for the part, dapper in a well-tailored grey suit that contours his compact, powerful frame.  The soft-spoken trumpeter doesn’t need to say much; the ensemble has internalized the music’s groove and flow. while Reeves is fine-tuning her interpretations of songs like “Mood Indigo” and “Azure.”

Payton calls “Poor Bubber,” Rex Stewart’s 1941 paean to Bubber Miley, the King Oliver disciple whose assortment of signifying growls, smears and vocalisms established the tone of Ellington’s ’20s “Jungle music.”  With an embouchure that seems to begin at the back of his neck, he projects an immense, thrilling sound, warm and round and enveloping through the full range of the trumpet.  Never in a rush, he milks the elemental line, creates melodies, sings his song, telling a story that channels Miley’s animating spirit while sounding fresh and in-the-moment.  It’s the kind of performance Payton — now 26 — has been pulling off since he was a teenage phenom in New Orleans, when his ability to infuse Classic Jazz repertoire with idiomatic authority and life force elicited a comment from the late trumpeter Adolphus “Doc” Cheatham — who played with the seminal masters in the ’20s, and was 91 when he recorded with Payton in 1996 — that Payton, born two years after Louis Armstrong’s death, came as close to the Armstrong essence as anyone he had ever heard.

Not that it preoccupies him, but as his career surges, Payton draws skeptical scrutiny from observers who confuse his virtuosic navigation of older styles with a sensibility drenched in atavistic revivalism. It’s the same critique numerous jazz scribes hurl at the oeuvre of J@LC Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis, who a decade ago, as a sign of his regard, sent his 15-year-old homie a trumpet.

The charges don’t hold up. Consider Payton’s diverse 1999-2000 activities, which bespeak an ample comfort zone with the full jazz timeline.  He’s just finished mixing “Nick@Night,” the fourth album by his highly interactive quintet, which has worked steadily since 1996, and sounds like it.  The intricately composed tunes cohere like an extended suite; they explore the polarities of nighttime experience — restfulness and peace versus the spirit of partying.  The orientation is optimistic, decidedly Modernist; references include Bebop, the collective improvisation and harmonic alliteration of post-1965 Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter, the sophisticated grooves of CTI-period Freddie Hubbard, and a range of R&B tropes.  Now Payton’s pondering the next record, a Y2K Armstrong Centennial project featuring a group of Armstrong tunes scored for a 12-piece band, concurrent with a Winter 2000 J@LC commission for an original composition exploring the rhythms and sounds he grew up hearing in New Orleans.  Then there’s the still unrecorded 8-9 piece electrified funk group (he adds an effects unit and wah-wah setup to his arsenal) with world-class local musicians that he leads during his increasingly infrequent New Orleans downtime.

You might call Payton’s ancient-to-future aesthetic a birthright.  His family lived across the street from Louis Armstrong Park, once known as Congo Square, the 19th century locus of the slave trade, perhaps the only place in the Antebellum South where Africans were allowed to play the drums.  Located in the Tremaine district, the neighborhood was home base for numerous seminal New Orleans musicians.  During formative years, Nicholas played in the Young Tuxedo Brass Band, a unit formed at the turn of the century which specialized in traditional repertoire, and also in the All-Star Brass Band, a group of peers deeply influenced by the rhythmic and harmonic extensions introduced to local vernacular by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.  He soaked up the feeling of Second Line and Mardi Gras Indian rituals.  His mother, Maria, was a former operatic singer and a classically trained pianist who eschewed a career to raise her family; his father Walter, a bassist-tubist and retired educator who is a mainstay of the thriving Crescent City trad scene, would take his young son to Bourbon Street gigs.

After the gigs, Walter Payton would call midnight rehearsals at the house, and from his earliest years Nicholas heard the nocturnal sessions, soaking up music, experimenting on his father’s expensive German bass, the family piano, and drumkits left by drummers like Herlin Riley or James Black, who didn’t care to lug them home in the wee hours.

“He just sat there like a little sponge, observing, absorbing information, not making a lot of noise,” Riley — the nephew of cornetist Melvin Lastie, a pathbreaking figure in the city’s R&B scene, and the grandson of Frank Lastie, a drummer who played in the 1910s with Armstrong in the foundling homes — recalls fondly.  “He was very mature, with a whole package that showed his  potential to blossom and become a great artist.  I think Nicholas is the spirit of Louis Armstrong, Buddy Bolden and those kind of people; it lives in him more than any other trumpet player from New Orleans.  He was raised into a TRADITION.  The sound of New Orleans traditional jazz was part of his upbringing; that’s where his roots are.  It wasn’t something he had to reach back for; he took his roots and extended beyond.”

As the youngster entered his teens, he got calls to play in a variety of R&B horn sections, and attended numerous jam sessions at which postbop was the operative lingua franca.  During those years, Payton attended the New Orleans Center of the Creative Arts (N.O.C.C.A.), where Clyde Kerr — a fourth-generation musician whose father, also an educator, hosted ’40s workshop rehearsals attended by important New Orleans musicians like Red Tyler and Alvin Batiste — took him under his wing.

After telling me that he and Walter Payton played their first Mardi Gras parade together in 1960, Kerr recalls his amazement at hearing a 10-year-old Nicholas on trombone with a young brass band “playing lines like a trumpet player would play.  I used to go to those late night rehearsals when Nick was 8 or 9, and he would sit beside me on the sofa and try to play the music.  It might have been over his head, but he approached it from a very serious perspective, the way it should be done.  By the time he was at N.O.C.C.A., he had a vast repertoire of traditional music; I asked him where he learned it all, and he said, ‘Man, I don’t know.  I just know it.’ It made me think a bit about reincarnation, that he’d been here before.  Then also, I did a record called ‘No Compromise’ where I play a solo where I’m stretching, trying to find new sounds, approaching the trumpet like a saxophone — Nicholas was able to sing it verbatim as a young guy.  Once he hears something, he never forgets it.”

Payton credits progressive New Orleans elders like Kerr, drummer Alvin Fielder (he appeared on Roscoe Mitchell’s paradigm-shifting 1966 recording Sound) and saxophonist Kidd Jordan (the father of flutist Kent Jordan and a world-class speculative improviser with close ties to Chicago’s AACM) as mentors who imparted to him the notion of a global aesthetic.  “When I was at N.O.C.C.A., Clyde Kerr never taught us patterns,” Payton recalls during a lengthy conversation in his hotel room the night after the rehearsal, “When he caught us doing it, he would put us in check, saying, ‘No, the heart is what counts.’  He told us to feel.  His manner of teaching and his expression still impresses me.

“New Orleanian musicians have always had a hip thing about the way they play; some of the world’s best musicians live there — you walk up the street and there they are.  A lot of attention is focused on the pioneers — Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton.  But New Orleans produced great, forward-thinking musicians, such as Ed Blackwell or James Black, who were innovators of the drumset.  James Black was swinging out in straight-ahead 5/4, not playing 3/4-2/4 patterns; he referred to Elvin Jones and Ed Blackwell and Max Roach, but had his own conception of the drum.  He lived right around the corner from us; he’d come to our house like at 3-4 in the morning and play, and I would sit at the piano and he would try to show me these things.  I was only 12 or 13 around the time he passed,  but I learned a lot about composition from him.  He’s one of my heroes.”

Not that Payton’s taking his music to the outermost partials, but he shares the iconoclastic sensibility of his mentors.  “I loved science, particularly chemistry, when I was in school,” he declares.  “I contemplated studying to be a chemist, but by high school I knew I wanted to be a musician, and nothing interested me more.  Music is a science.   What’s similar is the feeling of exploration from mixing and combining the bits and pieces of different elements towards an infinite number of possible outcomes.  I like to think for myself.  I’m not the kind of person who can memorize an end result and regurgitate it.  I have to understand the source, so I can create my own perspective, and not go by someone else’s interpretation.  In school I’d want to know why a particular theorem took its form, what a concept actually meant, and I’d get frustrated when people couldn’t explain those things to me.  I spent a lot of time in the library researching the information, and I would challenge the teachers, which got me in trouble sometimes.

“In music I realized early on that I wanted to stay away from the books with patterns and chord changes, from ‘play this on a C7.’  I felt it was too easy, that it wasn’t a way I could get at what I heard on the records at my house.  I wanted to find my own notes, to find the feeling.  So I went to the records to research what Miles Davis was doing on a particular tune on Four and More, which is the record that made me decide I wanted to play jazz, or to investigate Lee Morgan or Clifford Brown or Kenny Dorham, and tried to formulate my own idea about what actually was happening.  It’s almost like I started in the ’60s, then worked my way back to New Orleans.  When I began to play, I was doing a lot of traditional New Orleans gigs and playing in the brass bands, so I wanted to listen to something different.  It took me a couple of years to get back to Louis Armstrong and King Oliver, and study them in depth.  I feel very comfortable and liberated playing that music — I grew up doing it, it’s quite natural for me, and I can do so without feeling like I’m not free.  I’ve tried to understand their trumpet styles so well that I’d avoid replicating their solos and not play cliches within what they did.

“I love playing in different styles; to me it’s not old or new, just a different means of expression.  Whenever I play, regardless of the context, I’m inspired by that moment, and I try to fit in.  The music of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five won’t sound right if you play some pentatonic tritonal substitution.  I’m all for updating arrangements on old tunes, but it works better when you play within that specific style.  You can be just as creative and free in that sound as in an Ornette Coleman kind of sound.  There’s no harmonic or any other limitations in playing the older music.  You’re not going to play anything Louis Armstrong didn’t play, or think differently about rhythm.  Things that cats calculate now, he was doing naturally years ago — playing 5-over-4 or 3-over-4, playing flat-IX over a major-IX chord or a major-VII over a dominant VII chord.  All we’re doing is an extension of those things, and there’s greatness in all of it.”

Like many musicians of his age group, Payton is fascinated with rhythm and its connective permutations.  “It’s interesting how African rhythms blossomed differently according to what region slaves were brought and what culture they were mixed with,” he reflects.  “You can hear the clave in all the Caribbean rhythms, and even in New Orleans rhythms; there are so many different transmutations of that same thing.  Now, I’m not keen about the term ‘world music’; there’s been a trend to put a big umbrella over a whole range of sounds which are specific to certain cultures and regions, which neglects the depth and nuance and complexity of each entity.  But jazz was always a hybrid and mixture of numerous influences.  In New Orleans, the African and Indian rhythms were mixed with the European classical influence among Creole families, which you can hear most notably in the contrapuntal improvisation of someone like Sidney Bechet or the compositions of Jelly Roll Morton — and then the Blues and Spirituals.

“I don’t want to clutter up my music, because to me the most important thing is a strong melody.  I’m a harmonic freak.  Sometimes the guys in the band get on me, because the more I write, I keep sticking in chords, and it’s not that easy to play.  I just love a beautiful chord and the way harmony moves, and I love Classical music, particularly the Impressionist composers like Debussy and Ravel.  But I love rhythm, too, because I grew up playing in the brass bands with that bass drum and snare drum.  Kenyatta Simon, the percussionist who plays with my funk band and has worked with me on my Louis Armstrong project, has turned me on to the rhythms of Mali and Ghana and shown me a lot about using percussion.”

Asked what he’ll listen to on the road, Payton animatedly pulls out CDs by a pan-diasporic array of ambitious composers, including Brazilian visionary Hermeto Pascual and Pascual’s associate Carlos Malta, as well as Gil Evans, Claire Fischer, the late ’80s orchestral recordings of Wayne Shorter (“his music contains everything”), Ralph Irizarry’s up-to-the-second Salsa, a variety of Afro-Cuban records — and Frank Zappa.  “I have all of Zappa’s records — ‘Jazz From Hell,’ ‘Yellow Shark,’ ‘Studio Tan,’” Payton exclaims.  “He wrote things for symphony orchestra that are unbelievable, and did amazing things metrically, contrapuntally, harmonically.”

Impeccably performed like his three previous quintet recordings, “Nick@Night” lays a tantalizing beat behind Payton’s learning curve; like the others, it’s a remarkably candid document of his personal work-in-progress.  “In a way I was searching to tailor the music more for the personalities of the guys I work with, and let them speak, in the tradition of Ellington,” he noted last December in a follow-up phoner.  The virtuoso band — suave early-30s saxophonist Tim Warfield, who offers breathe-as-one precision in the ensembles and passionate tone and convincing narrative in his solos; 28-year-old pianist Anthony Wonsey, an immaculate comper and spot-on soloist with pristine touch who studied with ’30s Armstrong arranger Zilner Randolph as a Chicago youngster; Reuben Rogers, a fluent big-sound bassist with Swiss watch-precise time; and energetic drummer Adonis Rose, Payton’s N.O.C.C.A. classmate — rises to the occasion.

“My career actually has been a slow process, which is what I think allowed me to grow and survive and keep a band out there,” Payton remarks.  “All the major labels approached me about signing from when I was 15 or 16, and I put it off for four years.  I didn’t want to jump on that whole young lions bandwagon.  I wanted to take the time to learn what I needed to learn and develop a foundation so that I would have something to rely on.   When I started touring with my band, we had maybe two weeks worth of gigs the whole year.  My second record was received pretty well, didn’t sell that great, but there was a lot of buzz.  When I performed and played, we tried to give people something personal, and they didn’t forget it; the next time they brought somebody, and the next time they told someone else — and then I was working 9 months out of the year.  It wasn’t some big media blitz.  It was just from me trying to play good, honest music.

“I want to maintain that throughout my career.  No matter how far we stretch out, which we like to do, I think it can be done in a way that doesn’t alienate people.  We can play something that grooves, something that totally burns out, even something totally free; people can see the history, how everything is tied together, and they dig it.  The audience is and always has been very important to me, maybe because of my roots in New Orleans, which is very people oriented.  For me there’s not even such a thing as playing for myself, because if it doesn’t move anyone else it does nothing for me.  Nobody wants to be alone in this world.  Nobody wants to be not appreciated.  Now, that doesn’t mean you have to compromise yourself or your artistic vision.  This music is vast, and I don’t like to box myself into any particular style.  I like to present how I’m feeling and what is real to me at that moment, and I always want to do that.  It’s worked for me thus far.”

It’s certainly working at an exuberant second-night concert at Alice Tully Hall; Payton — part and parcel with his holistic conception — pays strict attention to the function.  “To me Duke Ellington’s music is as modern as it gets,” he declares.  “Here we’re playing arrangements on tunes that probably weren’t played live, because the small band recordings were primarily studio  projects; the voicings that sound as fresh and hip as if somebody wrote it yesterday!”  By the tour’s 23rd and final concert a few weeks later in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the band is crisp, playing with spontaneous heat and joyous beat, caught up in the ebullient spirit of the music; “Poor Bubber,” set up as a down-home blues feature for Payton and Lovano, brings down the house.

A few months later, Lovano — who spent about 30 days on the road with Payton in 1999 in encounters including a winter 10-concert Japanese tour with the Ray Brown Trio on which the two were co-equal guest soloists as well as the subsequent “Duke In Small Doses” junket — is happy to offer a considered, cut-to-the-chase encomium.  “Nicholas is a total musician who draws from a rich vocabulary,’ the tenorman begins, “Though he loves all kinds of music and is up on everything happening today, he embraces the whole history, not just the way certain people played at his time.  You can hear that he grew up studying the personalities that emerged in jazz, how they played as well as what they played.  There’s a deep-rooted concept of feeling in his sound, not brash and edgy, but filled with warmth and beauty, no matter what tempo or what kind of tune it is.  You feel his sound at the mention of his name.  Nicholas plays from a beautiful place, and beauty is a rare thing — it either happens or it doesn’t.

* * *

Nicholas Payton Musician Show (3-15-95) — (WKCR):

TP:    What’s impressed me and a lot of other people since I first heard you is the quality of your sound, your ability to project a real volume from the instrument while keeping a capacious burnished tone.  It’s the type of sound you’d associate with brass players from New Orleans historically, where you’re from.  I think I could tell without knowing you’re from there.  You’ve been playing the trumpet almost from birth.

PAYTON:  I’ve been playing since I was 4 years old.

TP:    Let’s talk about your early years and your family history and so forth.  Both your parents are musicians, and your father’s a professional musician.

PAYTON:  Correct.  I asked my father for a trumpet at age 4.  I’d always been fascinated with the trumpet.  It symbolized some sort of strength or whatever.  The trumpet player usually played the lead or the melody, and I just liked the sound of it, moreso than the instruments.  I was fascinated with the trumpet the most.

TP:    Now, when you’re saying that, the implication is that you were seeing trumpet players already through your father’s activity, I would assume.

PAYTON:  Yes.  Well, my father used to bring me out on gigs with him and there were many rehearsals at my house.  I grew up listening to trumpet players like Leroy Jones, Wendell Brunious, Clyde Kerr, Jr., Teddy Riley.  So there were a lot of great trumpet players.

TP:    Now, in New Orleans, for reasons that combine economics and culture, there’s a lot of traditional music and older styles of playing are active and current and in the air moreso maybe than in other places.

PAYTON:  Right.

TP:    So you were hearing a wide range of approaches to trumpet, I suppose, from that early age as well.

PAYTON:  Definitely, from the early beginnings of the music all the way up through to now.

TP:    Talk about the dynamics of the New Orleans scene, how the older music intermingles with the newer, and the sensibility of the players.

PAYTON:  New Orleans is basically a tourist town, so the entertainment industry is geared toward older styles of music basically because people who travel to New Orleans expect to see a certain thing.  That’s good, in a sense, because that helps perpetuate that music, but in another sense a lot of the players who are more interested in more modern forms of the music don’t get as much of an outlet to perform and work in New Orleans unless they go elsewhere.

TP:    Another aspect of the music in New Orleans is the perpetuation of the second line and marching bands, some of which have been going on for several generations, some back to the time of Louis Armstrong, which is another source of continuity.

PAYTON:  Definitely.  It still goes on til today.

TP:    You were playing in marching bands from what age?

PAYTON:  I started doing that I guess around 9.

TP:    So what was happening with you between the ages of 4 and 9?  Your father, Walter, is a bass player, and your mother, Maria, is an operatic singer?

PAYTON:  Yes, she’s a former operatic singer.

TP:    Talk about your earlier musical career?  Was it a natural thing?  You picked it up, you did things, they said, “here, if you do this, you can achieve such-and-such”…

PAYTON:  No.  I mean, the first time I learned how to play I was extremely sad.  Everyone, my father and other musicians, encouraged me to play.  Throughout that period they were very supportive of me.  I remember the first gig I did, where I was hanging out with my father while he was getting ready to do a second-line parade (he plays tuba as well).  He took me out with him, and I had my trumpet with me.  So the musicians asked me to play, and I did the whole parade,  It was like two hours we were walking, and I was extremely tired, but I hung in there, and at the end of the gig all the musicians chipped in and gave me a little bit of money, like ten dollars.  I thought I was rich!  But that was like my first experience as far as being on the gig.

TP:    How about formal tuition on the trumpet.  I know you studied with a very strong trumpeter in New Orleans named Clyde Kerr.

PAYTON:  Right.  I studied with him.  He was one of my early influences.  I remember having rehearsals at my father’s house; Clyde would be on the gigs a lot of the time.  I used to sit by him and play his parts with him, or just watch him.  He knows a tremendous amount about the music and the trumpet, and the love and the beauty of the music in terms of… He has a real lyrical sense, and he really turned me on to Clifford Brown and a lot of different things.  I’m always grateful to Clyde for that.

TP:    One thing about the older musicians in the New Orleans area is their combination of functionally having to play the traditional music, and mastering it and respecting it, but also being very interested in contemporary music and new developments.  People like Kidd Jordan and Alvin Batiste and various visionaries have come through there.  Louis Armstrong himself combined that sense of being rooted in the vernacular and creating something entirely new, and we’ll start out the Musician Show with two classics by Pops.  Now, you’ve been pretty much immersed in performing his music publicly in the last six months to a year, and I’m sure way before that.

PAYTON:  Well, I didn’t really get into the music of Louis Armstrong until later in my playing, when I was 17 or 18.  Before that, I was just really into Miles and Clifford Brown and Fats Navarro and Lee Morgan.  Then I started listening to Louis Armstrong.  I took that style of playing for granted because I had grown up in New Orleans, and I had heard it a lot, but I didn’t really see the beauty of Louis Armstrong’s playing until I started listening to the recordings.  Then I saw how great he was.  I had an image in my mind of Louis Armstrong just being an entertainer and joking around.  I didn’t take him seriously as a trumpeter.  When I went back and started listening to his recordings, I realized how great he was.

TP:    This has been done ad infinitum, but I’d like you to briefly talk about the characteristics of his style that are pertinent today, to you.

PAYTON:  First, he had a huge sound, a very great sound.  It was very personal and very distinctive.  He had tremendous amounts of endurance.  A lot of the pieces that he played, especially in the ’30s period with the big band, like “Swing That Music” and “Jubilee” and “Chinatown,” where he takes these extended solos where he plays all these high notes and ending on like F’s and G’s.  I mean, a lot of people say, “Well, Louis Armstrong didn’t have the technical training” or whatever.  But I’d like to see trumpet players play that now.  It’s incredibly hard.  Rhythmically, he took the music years past what was before him.  Also harmonically.  As Miles Davis was quoted saying once, you can’t play a note on the horn that Louis Armstrong hadn’t already played, and that’s true.  I mean, a lot of things he played with phrases like bebop musicians played later on and whatnot.  So he’ll always be the definitive voice in jazz forever, regardless of how far the music goes.  His place in history can never be denied.

TP:    Now, you’ve had to both replicate his solos and improvise on the solos as well, I guess…

PAYTON:  I never replicated his solos.  I just…

TP:    Okay.  But what are the challenges of playing Louis’ solos for you?

PAYTON:  Well, I guess I’ve sort of gotten accustomed to it because I’ve listened to it so much.  I grew up listening to that style of music, so it wasn’t as hard for me as it may have been for some to approach the music.  But to me, when you’re learning a person’s music or style, it’s not so important to me to know exactly what they’re playing or learn every solo when you’re playing in that style, or to play exactly what they played.  To me, it’s always been more important to get their concept and where they were coming from.  Why did they play this here?  What actually were they doing?  What was his mindset when he was actually playing that.  To get the concept.  That way, when you’re playing in that style, you can be free in whatever you’re doing, and be creative and bring yourself into it, rather than give some kind of recreation of what it is.  Because it’s never going to be as great as what has already been documented.

TP:    Well, Pops came up under King Oliver and formed a lot of his ideas from hearing him play, but of course it’s something very different, and the recordings they did in the early ’20s.  We’ll start with “Dippermouth Blues.” Before we hear it, a few words about King Oliver.

PAYTON:  King Oliver was a great trumpeter.  He had a real hip, bluesy feel.  He influenced a lot of trumpet players, especially with the wah-wah conception that people like Bubber Miley and Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams later employed.  This solo here is one of his most famous solos.  Trumpet players such as Louis Armstrong, Harry James, Rex Stewart…when you play this tune, you almost have to play these three choruses, because it just becomes monumental.  When you play this tune…all the trumpet players who have really played, play this strain when they’re playing this blues.

[MUSIC: Pops/King Oliver, "Dippermouth Blues" (1923); "Potato Head Blues" (1927); Roy Eldridge, "Body & Soul" (1935)]

TP:    Nicholas, would you address what Roy Eldridge did that’s jumping off from Pops, and his own conception.

PAYTON:  Well, one thing is that Roy Eldridge, along with being heavily influenced by Louis Armstrong, was also very influenced by the great Coleman Hawkins.  As you can see, Roy is playing a lot of the longer, linear lines, like Coleman Hawkins was dealing with in the ’30s.

TP:    Trying to play like a saxophone.

PAYTON:  Exactly.  Yet he still has the punchiness and the attack like Louis Armstrong, and was heavily influenced by both.

TP:    What’s interesting is that Coleman Hawkins sat next to Pops in the Fletcher Henderson band in the mid ’20s and was very influenced by him.

PAYTON:  That’s correct.

TP:    You have a piece on your new record that’s very much in the idiom and vibration of Roy Eldridge, a version of “Taking A Chance On Love.”  Talk about the dynamics of his style.

PAYTON:  Roy bridged the gap between the older style, the real straight style of playing, to playing lines more flowingly, more of a linear conception of playing the trumpet.  And he influenced a whole generation of trumpet players, mainly Dizzy Gillespie, who really was influenced by Roy.  Especially on the real early recordings you can tell how much he was into Roy.

TP:    That interaction was memorably record in 1954 for Verve on 9 tracks bringing together Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie.  Nicholas selected “Algo Bueno.”

PAYTON:  You’re about to hear some great trumpet playing.  It’s history being recorded.  These two trumpet titans are really… It’s a good experience to hear where Dizzy was heavily influenced by Roy, but he took that thing and made it his own, and these two trumpet players playing their own style… Stylistically, there’s a difference between them, but Roy wasn’t that much older than Diz — maybe four or five years older.  But they were both great trumpet players.

TP:    One aspect of Dizzy Gillespie’s impact wasn’t just his harmonic innovations, but his rhythmic innovations as well, bring the Afro-Cuban sound into the idiom.  But in New Orleans there’s an implicit Caribbean aspect as well.

PAYTON:  There’s a lot of multicultural influences in New Orleans, being that there were different settlers from all over.  You had French, you had Spanish settlers, you had the Indians.  So a lot of different cultural expressions all culminated into that.  All that goes back to the meetings on Sunday in Congo Square, where the people would get together and play.  That all comes out of that.  The second-line street beat comes out of all those influences.  It comes out of the influence of the march and… Sometimes you see those things where it’s the piccolo and the drum, or also the Afro-Cuban rhythms… It’s all mixed in, and it all comes together…

TP:    That lives on also in the Mardi Gras Indian bands.

PAYTON:  Exactly.  That comes directly out of all that.

[MUSIC: Roy-Diz, "Algo Bueno" (1954); Bird-Fats, "Street Beat" (1950); Clifford Brown, "Donna Lee" (1956)]

TP:    Again, put on the professor’s hat and talk about Fats Navarro and Clifford Brown, the evolution of trumpet sensibility.

PAYTON:  All those trumpet players came out of Dizzy Gillespie.  Fats came out of Dizzy, but he had a different thing, a real personal sound.  He had a huge sound.  He played very lyrically but at the same time being very virtuosic in being able to play long, complex phrases, while at the same time he utilized space and also played lyrically, which is beautiful, which is something that Clifford Brown was very influenced by — the playing of Fats Navarro.

TP:    Talk about playing melodies.  You’ve been quoted — and I can hear this, too — that you always create a melodic phrase even out of very convoluted type of harmonic lines.

PAYTON:  To me that’s the beauty of music.  That’s what it is for me.  Just being able to play a clear, sensible melody is one of the hardest things you can do.  And that’s something I think all the great jazz musicians strive to do over the course of their lives, is just be able to deliver the melodic line.

TP:    How long have you been composing for groups?

PAYTON:  I’ve been composing seriously for three years?

TP:    Do you do it off the piano, off the trumpet?

PAYTON:  It’s a combination of things.  Sometimes I’m sitting sat the piano and something might hit me, and I go on and write it from there.  Sometimes I hear something in my head, and I go to the piano and work it out.  But I never try to write from an instrumental or theoretical standpoint.  I try to hear something that’s singable to myself in my head, something that someone who doesn’t necessarily like jazz or know anything about it could maybe come to the gig or hear it on record, and it’s something that will be singable to them, that could be catch, maybe they’d be whistling on their way home.  I try to think of melodies in those terms.  And I try to write melodies that lead the tune.  I don’t write changes.  I don’t try to write complex changes and then fit some kind of contrived melody over it.  I write the melody to lead where the progression of the tune is going.

TP:    You’ve recorded some standards as well on In This Moment, like “Taking A Chance On Love” and “You Stepped Out Of A Dream.”  Do you follow the dictum of knowing the lyric and keeping it in mind?

PAYTON:  Definitely.  I don’t feel I’m really playing a tune unless I know what the lyrics are and what the meaning of the tune is.  Then you can do whatever you want with it.  I find a lot is lost when you don’t know the melody for yourself as a reference.  I mean it’s good to know what other jazz musicians have played on tunes, definitely.  But you need the score really to see, so you can bring whatever you can bring to it, instead of just getting someone’s interpretation of an interpretation of an interpretation, and by the time you get it the whole melodic structure of the tune may be gone.  So you need that as a reference point, I feel.

TP:    I’d like to talk to you a little bit about sound as well.  At the top of the show I said that I think the one thing that strikes everyone on hearing you is just the breadth and warmth of your sound.  Is it a sound you’ve had in your mind’s ear?  Is it a quality of combining hard work and embrochure and so forth?

PAYTON:  Well, sound is something you always are working on.  As a musician, you’re always trying to develop your sound.  And your sound matures as you grow older.  To me, sound is the most important aspect of playing.  Because that’s the thing that people can most readily identify with — your musical sound.

TP:    It’s your voice.

PAYTON:  That’s right.

TP:    Was this very expansive sound in your ear from your early years of hearing brass bands and other music?

PAYTON:  Well, it’s a culmination of different experiences and different influences.

TP:    We’ll leave it at that, and turn to a trumpet player with one of the most beautiful sounds, Joe Wilder, who spent most of his career in the studios, but has recorded a number of extraordinary small group albums where he improvises at wonderful length, and one was done in 1956 for Savoy, a trumpet and rhythm date with Hank Jones on piano, Wendell Marshall on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums.  We’ll hear “Cherokee.”

PAYTON:  When I first heard this, I didn’t really know much about Joe Wilder.  I had heard his name before.  I knew he had been a member of several different big bands.  But he hadn’t been involved in a lot of solo projects, or really gotten out there. This is an example of some of the great musicians who have been in our music but have never really gotten the opportunity to get their due.  He was a great player, and I think he deserves to be listened to.

[MUSIC: Joe Wilder, "Cherokee" (1956); Clark Terry/OP, "Brotherhood Of Man" (1963); Sweets/Ben Webster, "Did You Call Her Today" (1961)]

TP:    What came to mind hearing those tracks is that all three trumpet players had mastered and assimilated modern harmonic developments, but kept the phrasing and pace and feel of an earlier generation.

PAYTON:  Well, they sort of fit between the mold of the old-style Swing period and the Bebop period.

TP:    A few words about each.  Harry Sweets Edison has a very vocalized style, almost like he’s having a conversation with you.

PAYTON:  Sweets was a truly great trumpeter.  What I love about him is he has great time.  He really gets into a rhythm.  He can swing one note to death.  A great phraser.  Plays beautiful melodies, too.

TP:    Clark Terry is really a total musician.  Miles said because he heard him in St. Louis in the early ’40s, when he went to 52nd Street nothing he heard surprised him.  He seems able to play every area of music with a totally personal conception.  And you’ve had a chance to associate with him in the last few years.

PAYTON:  Clark has helped me tremendously.  Besides me, he’s helped many young instrumentalists.  He’s a great educator, and he’s very patient with young students of jazz.  Besides being a great musician… I’ve stood on the bandstand with him many a night and listened to recordings.  He’s just another one of those great musicians who never really was able to get established on his own, which is really unfortunate.  Clark influenced many musicians, like Miles…he’s just great…

TP:    He’s a musician who played in the big bands, then stayed in the studios because of the economics of raising a family.

PAYTON:  Yeah.  He was one of musicians’ favorite trumpet players, even though he never got exposed to the masses.  Duke Ellington and Count Basie were quoted as saying that he was their favorite trumpet player.  So he had the respect of the whole musical community.

TP:    I’d like to talk a bit with you about phrasing.  On the one hand, people who come up in different times and are affected by what goes on around them think and phrase in different ways, and yet that type of phrasing we heard with Sweets and Clark Terry is classic, part of the idiom.  Let’s say you were approaching that type of material.  Is putting yourself in that frame of mind something you have to think about, or does it come naturally with playing the piece.

PAYTON:  I think I just try to play that way, period.  I always try to think in terms of phrasing, regardless of the period.  To me, it’s all jazz and they all consist of the same elements.  There are differences within different styles of music, but the foundation is always the same.

TP:    With Mulgrew Miller, Peter Washington and Louis Nash at this Vanguard this week, you have a rhythm section that’s capable of both playing extremely creatively in their solo aspect and also totally supportive.

PAYTON:  They’re great.  Mulgrew and Louis are two of my favorite musicians playing today.  They’re both very tasteful and supportive, but at the same time being very great individual soloists.  I couldn’t think of too many people I’d rather work with than those guys.

TP:    Coming up is Miles Davis, a piece we heard you play last night, albeit under its original title and not the royalty-avoiding one.  This is George Shearing’s “Conception,” which Miles Davis recorded in 1951, then subsequently in 1954 as “Take-Off” for Blue Note.  Within your own personal framework, how does Miles Davis come in?

PAYTON:  Miles has been a tremendous influence on my playing.  He totally changed the concept of the trumpet.  Once Miles Davis’ playing came in the picture, that added a whole new thing to the art of jazz trumpet.  He’s a masterful musician, a master of lyricism and phrasing and timing — and had a wonderful sound, of course.

[MUSIC: Miles, "Take Off" (1954); "Old Folks" (1961)]

TP:    We’ll hear three performances featuring trumpeters with Duke Ellington, two of them by Ellington trumpet players.  Nicholas, you’ve had a chance to play quite a bit of Ellington’s music now with the J@LC.  Ellington used his trumpets in so many different ways, had trumpeters with different personalities, and wrote and arranged for the personalities of those personalities, going back to Bubber Miley and Cootie Williams and Freddie Jenkins and Rex Stewart.  Was your first exposure to Ellington’s music as a kid listening to records?

PAYTON:  When I started listening to Ellington, I didn’t realize the magnitude of the great music he composed.  To me, Duke Ellington wrote “Take The A Train” and “Satin Doll,” and that was my extent of my knowledge of what he did.  It wasn’t until later on, when I got into a lot of his extended works that he and Billy Strayhorn both worked on, like “The Far East Suite,” “The Perfume Suite” and all those type of pieces… I remember talking about the Ellington days with Clark Terry, and he shared a lot of memories.  He said, you look at the Ellington band, and you can take the trumpet players who went through that band and get the whole history of trumpet playing practically, just out of the trumpet section, different people who passed through there.  So there’s a lot of rich history in the Ellington band, not only with the trumpets, but all the instrumentalists as well.

TP:    It must extremely useful to you as an improviser to be able to play the music of the great classic composers of jazz, more or less the music’s building blocks, within the Lincoln Center Orchestra, and then come out as a contemporary improviser with your own sound.

PAYTON:  Yes, I’m very fortunate to get an opportunity to play a lot of this music.

TP:    You get involved in its inner dynamics.

PAYTON:  Definitely.  I mean, it’s great listening to it, but it’s a totally different thing when you’re right there in the middle of the band and you can really hear all the parts clearly and really see what’s going on, and you can really see yourself the range of difficulty this music entails.

TP:    And I think what you want to make clear to people is that it’s not imitative, it’s a processing, then filtered through your consciousness, and something contemporary and new is coming out.

PAYTON:  Yeah.  And that’s what Duke Ellington’s thing was about.  When Clark Terry came in the band, he didn’t make him play like Rex Stewart or anybody.  He let him be Clark Terry and based the band around that.  And I think any great leader has the ability to do that.  Like Miles,  To be a leader doesn’t mean to tell your sideman what to do.  It simply means you create an outlet for the player to express themselves, and let them bring whatever experiences and talents they have into it to make it great.

TP:    One of the great individualists in the Ellington band was Ray Nance, who had the trumpet chair for many years, and we’ll hear a feature for him from 1959, “Pie Eye’s Blues.”

PAYTON:  Ray Nance is a great trumpeter, another who was very respected among musicians but never could really get too much out of the big band circuit.  He was a master of muted playing, and also playing with the hat, and had a gorgeous sound.

TP:    We’ll also be hearing a Shorty Baker feature on “Mood Indigos” from Indigos.

PAYTON:  Shorty was a great phraser.  He had a very sweet, sensual tone.

[MUSIC:  Ellington/Nance, "Pie Eye's Blues" (1959); Ellington-Baker, "Mood Indigo" (1959); Ellington/Diz, "UMMG" (1959)]

TP:    We’ll program a marathon set featuring four trumpeters — Kenny Dorham, Freddie Hubbard, Booker Little, Art Farmer.  You recorded one of K.D.’s compositions and performed during last night’s first set — “Fair Weather.”  We’ve spoken of individual voices on the trumpet; no one was ever more so than Kenny Dorham.

PAYTON:  Yes, he was definitely an individual with his own conception of sound.  Unfortunately, again, he’s another one of the trumpet players who never got very wide recognition but was very well respected in the musical trumpet.

TP:    As Miles Davis said, he was playing his own thing and was original.  He developed his own conception, as evident on his recording.  He also influenced Freddie Hubbard, who came up here once and said that K.D. had been a saxophone player earlier and had developed a lot of his attitude from his saxophone experience, as you mentioned earlier about Roy Eldridge.

PAYTON:  Freddie is one of the greatest, personally one of my favorite trumpeters.  He has all the aspects of trumpet playing I like.  He has a warm, big sound.  He has a pile of chops.  Is capable of playing very complex lines that are virtuosic, but at the same time has a  beautiful, lyrical quality about his playing.

TP:    Almost operatic in his scope when he’s really on, from lovely ballads to gladiatorial type trumpet pieces.  Born in the same year as Freddie was Booker Little, and they emerged at the same time.  But we’ll never know what Booker Little would have done since he died at the age of 23.  But people are still grappling with what he did.

PAYTON:  Yeah, he was amazing.  Again, an amazing technician as well as a great trumpet player.  He was very virtuosic, but at the same time played lyrically, as you’ll hear.  The way he plays over time is so free and flowing, but at the same time you could still hear the continuity of the piece within his freer time even though he’s playing over the beat.  Booker Little never really developed his full potential because of his untimely death, but all the trumpet players at the time, when Booker Little came, were frightened by him.  I heard Freddie telling about Booker Little, that when he first heard him he was scared.  He said he’d never heard anyone play trumpet like that.  He was great, as well as a great composer.

TP:    Talk a bit about what was great and distinctive about his compositions, and the implications of what those compositions might subsequently have been.

PAYTON:  His music was very intellectual, but at the same time a lot of the melodies were very  simplistic while being complex, which I love.  He had the ability to appeal to people’s highest sense, but at the same time, it’s something someone could relate to on the most tangible level.

TP:    Kenny Dorham also had a lot of trumpet players note his slickness, his ability to go in and out of phrases, and connect…

PAYTON:  Yeah, he was a master of playing turnarounds and stuff like that.

TP:    Finally, concluding the set, we’ll hear a 1964 performance by the Art Farmer Quartet with guitarist Jim Hall on “Stompin’ At the Savoy.”  We’re talking about another of the great individualists of the trumpet, and someone whose every note seems clear as a bell, whose thought process you can hear.

PAYTON:  Yeah, Art Farmer was and still is a great melodist, a great trumpet player.  He was a big influence on my playing.  One of the tracks I do on my record, “It Could Happen To You,” which I do with guitar and bass and drums, comes right out of the quartet stuff we’re going to hear.

TP:    Another thing about Art Farmer is that he never stops challenging himself conceptually and compositionally.  He’s always bringing in new material, and it seems that the harder the piece, the more he wants to play it.

PAYTON:  Yeah.  He has no limitations or any hangups about playing material.

TP:    Well, Nicholas Payton seems to be going in that direction himself, and he’s at the beginning of what promises to be a very interesting career to follow, which I’ll certainly be doing.  You can hear where he is right now at the Village Vanguard.

[ETC.]

[MUSIC: KD, "Lotus Blossom" (1959); Freddie, "One Finger Snap" (1964); Booker/Max, "Garvey's Ghost" (1961); Art Farmer, "Stompin' At the Savoy" (1962)]

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Filed under Article, Interview, Jazziz, New Orleans, Nicholas Payton, WKCR

Randy Brecker’s Uncut DownBeat Blindfold Test

Went to the Blue Note last note to hear Randy Brecker and the “Brecker Brothers Reunion Band,” for a DownBeat caught piece. I won’t give away the goods on what transpired, except to say that no one is playing more trumpet than the elder Brecker brother, who unfailingly cuts to the chase with a fluent virtuosity that has the feel of Freddie Hubbard circa, say, 1972.

Seems like a good time to run the uncut version of the Blindfold Test we did in 2008.

Randy Brecker Blindfold Test (Raw):

1.   Marcus Printup, “Hot House” (from PEACE IN THE ABSTRACT, Steeplechase, 2006) (Printup, trumpet; Greg Tardy, tenor saxophone; Kengo Nakamura, bass; Shinnosuke Takahashi, drums; Tadd Dameron, composer)

Obviously, “Hot House,” which is no easy task to perform. No piano. Sounds like a contemporary take on it, which is interesting. Maybe something Russell Gunn might do. It’s a good solo, good feel. Russell would probably be my first guess. My second guess would be Roy, but it’s not quite Roy’s sound. Not Russell? Well, I like pianoless quartets. There’s a lot of open space in this, and they have a very nice feel. If it’s not Russell, it’s somebody who has what I call a really good jazz trumpet sound, and he’s listened to the tradition of the instrument. The tenor player sounds like somebody I know, but I can’t quite place it. Let’s see if I get it on the fours. No, you got me. The tenor had a little Lovano in there, but it’s not him, and I can’t quite place the trumpet player. But both were excellent soloists, both could utilize the full range of their instruments and play great within the bebop tradition with a hint of modernity with the arrangement, which is completely contemporary. For execution and musicality, 4 stars. There wasn’t anything I suppose amazingly original, but it was really well-done and swinging. I have no idea who the bass player or drummer was. It could have been Tain maybe.

2.   Enrico Rava, “Felipe” (from THE THIRD MAN, ECM, 2007) (Rava, trumpet; Stefano Bollani, piano; Moacir Santos, composer)

Nice trumpet sound. Maybe a little too much reverb on the trumpet, on the recording. It might be one of those audiophile recordings with one microphone in the church. The pianist has a very nice, light touch, which I like. Also a nice in-and-out harmonic sense. The trumpet player has a really nice, open trumpet sound, probably some classical training. But I’m finding it hard to nail down who it is or what the tune is either. Boy, you got me on that one, but once again, it was a very nice performance, for me kind of a strange recording, probably a really large, open room, or maybe they added a little too much reverb, but it was a really good performance and, whatever the tune is, very well-written—maybe it’s an original. Moacir Santos? Ah. I’d say 4 stars. I enjoyed both the solos, and the trumpet player’s tone. He constantly came up with ideas. Enrico? That’s interesting. I played with Enrico in the ‘60s, but I still know him more as a less harmonic, free player. We were both at the time heavily influenced by Don Cherry, and that’s how I remember him. I know his playing has changed a lot in the ensuing years, and he practices more. I remember hearing an interview where he… You can tell that he spends a lot of time on the instrument. His tone is completely different than it used to be. A very, very nice tone. ECM? For me, there’s still a little too much reverb on that one.

3.  Tom Harrell, “Va” (from LIGHT ON, High Note, 2007) (Harrell, trumpet, composer; Wayne Escoffery, tenor saxophone; Danny Grissett, piano; Ugonna Okegwo, bass; Jonathan Blake, drums)

Sounds like an original composition with difficult changes. The trumpet player is doing a good job of negotiating the changes, so maybe it’s his tune. Man, this tune just keeps going and going! I’m waiting for the changes to stop for a second. But they’re doing a good job with it. Conversely, recording-wise, for my taste, this is a little too dry-sounding. The trumpet player has a nice, light touch, really relaxed. I have no idea who it is yet. I’d probably like to hear this tune open up somewhere in the tune. It’s a lot of chords. All in all, I like the tune, the melody, but again, I feel harmonically there should have been some kind of open section, especially with the three solos. The solos were all good. The trumpet player was kind of influenced by Miles. It was a little too locked in for me to kind of tell who anybody was. 3½ stars. Tom Harrell? So that’s Wayne Escoffery. That’s pretty good. Once again, it didn’t sound like my conception of Tom. That was Tom’s tune, obviously. Good tune, but I wouldn’t want to play on it.

4.   Avishai Cohen, “Gigi et Amelie” (from Third World Love, NEW BLUES, Anzic, 2007) (Cohen, trumpet, composer; Yonathan Avishai, piano; Omer Avital, bass; Daniel Freedman, drums)

Nice tune. I wonder who this is. Maybe composed by somebody in the band. Doesn’t sound like American guys. Maybe South American. Charming comes to mind, the way they’re playing the tune. This is a charming rendition, heartfelt. Once again, it’s a nice, open trumpet sound. It’s hard to hear the sound with the Harmon mute before. I don’t think it’s him, but it has somewhat of a Kenny Wheeler vibe, though I don’t think it’s him. Another Italian guy? For some reason, I don’t even know why I say this, but I was thinking Argentina. Anyway, it was a really pretty tune and they played it well. 4 stars. Avishai? I was a little off geographically. I just heard Avishai at the Blue Note a couple of nights ago and he sounded really good. But it’s hard to make the connection. So far, everyone’s sound is very nice, but it’s hard to pick out individuals in general—but that’s a sign of the times. Now, I just heard the same group a couple of nights ago at the late night set at the Blue Note, and they sounded very good, so maybe I should have recognized it. Plus, they have the same name, so if they married each other it would be good.

5.  Graham Haynes, “Oshogbo” (from Adam Rudolph, DREAM GARDEN, Justin Time, 2008) (Rudolph, percussion; Haynes, cornet; Ned Rothenberg, alto saxophone; Hamid Drake, drumset, percussion; Kenny Wessel, electric guitar; Steve Gorn, bansuri bamboo flute; Shantir Blumenkrantz, acoustic bass; Adam Rudolph, hand drumset)

Interesting voicings, first of all. It’s an adventurous tune, adventurous voicings and conception. It’s very modern in conception in comparison to the other things I’ve heard. A trumpet player I’ve played with, whose name is Amir El-Saffar, has a group that might be similar in conception. But I need to hear it. It didn’t quite sound like him; he has a little more traditional trumpet technique. But I have no idea who it is. Conceptually it’s very interesting, taking it out on a limb. It was for the most part in 7, but it was broken up quite originally. Now it’s going to another place. It might be some guys who aren’t American again—not that it matters. Interesting writing. I liked it. 4 stars for the originality. It didn’t ever quite get to the next level for me, but it was quite interesting. It was nice to hear something different.

6.   Jim Rotondi, “Mamacita” (from THE PLEASURE DOME, SharpNine, 2004) (Rotondi, trumpet; David Hazeltine, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums)

I think that’s a flugelhorn. Somebody influenced by Freddie. Is this a Kenny Dorham tune? Oh, it’s a Joe Henderson-Kenny Dorham record, but I can’t think of the name. Ah, yes, “Mamacita.” They’re getting a good groove. My wild guess would be Jeremy Pelt playing flugelhorn. Not Jeremy? Somebody like that. A lot of chops, a lot of good ideas. That’s a nice reharmonization of the tune. Like I said earlier, they had a nice groove; the drummer has a nice sound, kind of Tony-ish. Well, somebody in there… It’s not Eddie Henderson. But somebody who listens to a lot of the same people I do. 4 stars. [AFTER] Those guys are all really consistent players, and they know how to lay it down. It threw me for a loop because I’m used to hearing Rotondi play trumpet with more of a Freddie sound. Strangely enough, for a second, on one phrase, I thought of Arturo Sandoval. I knew it wasn’t him. But Jim is an excellent and really consistent player. I always enjoy listening to him.

7.  Bill Dixon-Tony Oxley, “Sine Qua Non” (from PAPYRUS, VOL.1, Soul Note, 1999) (Bill Dixon, trumpet, composer; Tony Oxley, drums & percussion)

I’m not sure who this is. It’s an interesting piece. Trumpet and drums. It doesn’t quite sound like they’re listening to each other. The drummer has a lot of chops, but just kind of streamrolling over what the trumpet player’s doing. For me, this might make a nice intro, but for a whole piece it’s wearing a little thin. Wild guess. Bill Dixon. He’s another guy I came upon and played with a couple of times when I first came to New York. As I said, this might make a nice introduction, but it’s leaving me kind of cold. Ah, that’s a Bill Dixon there right there. It’s getting more intense. We’ll see how intense it gets. Slow build. The drummer’s arms must be getting tired by now? Who is it? Tony Oxley? Dixon also pioneered in the electronic sounds that he’s doing now. Now it sounds like they’re listening to each other. But maybe that was the point, that they not listen to each other. I might give it 2½ by the end. It just took too long to get into something for me, but that’s just my opinion. If I was playing, it might be a different story. It’s a whole other perspective when you’re actually playing like that. You actually lose time.

8.  Mike Rodriguez, “Guayaquil” (The Rodriguez Brothers, CONVERSATIONS, Savant, 2007) (Mike Rodriguez, trumpet; Robert Rodriguez, piano; Ricardo Rodriguez, bass; Antonio Sanchez, drums)

Nice tune. It’s nice how they’re using the piano almost as a second horn, and the right hand of the piano blended nicely with the trumpet melody. Nice harmony. The trumpet player is doing a really good job of negotiating the changes. Hard tune. Nice warm trumpet sound. It’s obviously contemporary guys. I like the chord progression. I like the tune. The performance is very good. I’ll just throw out George Cables for piano? I don’t know. I’m not sure who the trumpet player is yet. It’s coming out of that period we all grew up in. Got me again. I could hazard a few wild guesses. It sounds like somebody I should know, too. Something in the vibrato and the tone struck me, but I can’t place it, and I can’t tell if it’s a younger guy or maybe a slightly older guy, but I think it might be a slightly older guy. Something about the conception makes me think that—at least the piano player. But I can’t place it. I liked it. It didn’t really jump out at me. But 3½ stars. It was really well-done. Everybody had a lot of chops and performed it really well. If I had to make a wild guess, Nicholas Payton, a younger guy. But somebody of that ilk. [AFTER] I’ve heard a lot about Mike Rodriguez. I haven’t heard him yet. Antonio is a wonderful drummer and he was right in the pocket on that one. You’re getting me on all these guys, but everything I’ve heard I’ve enjoyed so far. It’s amazing, the amount of musicianship that goes into all these records. Trumpet is not an easy instrument, and everybody sounds great.

9.   Corey Wilkes, “Quintet Nine” (from Roscoe Mitchell, TURN, RogueArt, 2005) (Wilkes, trumpet; Mitchell, flute, percussion; Craig Taborn, piano; Jaribu Shahid, bass, percussion; Tani Tabbal, drums)

I’m trying to figure out what instrument that is—a high slide whistle or a piccolo. This is the second tune in 7, so that’s a real popular time signature these days. It’s an interesting, moody, kind of evocative arrangement, an evocative piece. Maybe somebody like Jack Walrath, but it’s probably not him. They were all coasting along together. It meandered a bit, I think. I like things happening quicker. This section is nice. I still can’t figure out if that’s a piccolo or a high slide whistle. It’s an interesting tune, though. There’s a little Eric Dolphy influence in general, but Jack Walrath is the only one who came to mind—it’s not him, I can tell. The composition is interesting. 3 stars. I’m not familiar with Corey Wilkes’ work, but it’s an interesting piece.

10.   Dave Ballou, “Tenderly” (from REGARDS, Steeplechase, 2004) (Ballou, trumpet; Frank Kimbrough, piano; John Hebert, bass; Randy Peterson, drums)

A nice, pure, unfettered trumpet sound. I like that. No vibrato. Nailing it. Except it’s probably a flugelhorn. Nice, floaty time, too, with regards to the rhythm section; nice and open, a lot of room for interpretation. This is interesting in the way they’re playing time but not playing time. An interesting conception. I like this in the respect that they’re all really listening to each other, and both harmonically and rhythmically it’s floating along. Really interesting. Kind of a Paul Bley influence on the piano, just the overall picture. There’s a record of Paul’s I used to love called Closer. It’s still interesting, because it doesn’t sound like they want to play the time. I hope there’s not supposed to be time during this section, but it’s still interesting. It’s really open. This is the way Paul Bley used to play with his trio when they first came to New York with Barry Altschul and Mark Levinson on bass—this kind of implied time. A really nice reinterpretation of the melody by the flugelhorn player. Really sensitive all around. Everybody really listened to each other. But I don’t have any idea who anyone is. He ended on a high-E, I think, on flugel—that’s no easy trick. Somebody I probably know, but probably not. 4 stars. It was a really original reading of the tune, and I’m impressed when people are that sensitive and really come up with something new on a standard that’s been played a million times. [AFTER] I played with Dave Ballou years ago on a Kenny Werner project, and I’ve always been impressed with his playing.

11.   Nicholas Payton, “Fela II” (from SONIC TRANCE, Warner, 2003) (Payton, trumpet; Kevin Hays, keyboards; Vicente Archer, bass; Adonis Rose, drums; Daniel Sadownick, percussion)

This has a nice, polyrhythmic quality to it, just from the getgo. Once again, a nice warm trumpet sound. Some of these guys I’m not familiar with, and it’s somewhat hard to differentiate one from the other, but everyone’s technique has been admirable today. The trumpet player has really good range and facility, good ideas. Generally, this piece reminds of Miles’ band, the Bitches Brew days, especially the sounds coming out of the keyboard. It’s a little more metrically modulated than were tunes in those days. But everyone’s listening and responding to each other really well. Really good facility on the trumpet. Clark exercises. But once again, I couldn’t even hazard a guess as to who it was. I don’t know if it’s someone I know, but he had a lot of facility on the instrument. Good sound. Interesting piece. 3½ stars. [AFTER] Oh, that’s from Sonic Trance. I should have guessed it. Nick is one of my favorite players. He has so much facility on the instrument. This was a radical shift from what he was doing before. I remember when he did it. I actually heard this live. Was Kevin Hays playing? Yes, he was there. I heard him in New Orleans at Snug Harbor. So I should have guessed.

12.   Ryan Kisor, “Deception” (from THE DREAM, Criss-Cross, 2001) (Kisor, trumpet; Peter Zak, piano; John Webber, bass; Willie Jones, III, drums)

Whoever it is has amazing technique. That’s a hard head. The changes to “Cherokee.” Amazing facility. Wow, that was very, very good. I’ll hazard a guess. Ryan Kisor maybe? Whoa! He’s too good. That was exceptional facility. I’ve also heard Wynton play this tune, like, 50 choruses, which is very impressive, so I figured if it wasn’t Wynton it might very well be Ryan. He’s an exceptional player in all realms—great lead player, great soloist, knows all the styles. He’s one of my favorites. I’ve played with him a lot in Mingus Big Band. Wow, that was great. 4½ stars. Well, 5 stars just on Ryan’s virtuosity, but maybe take a half-star away because I’ve heard the tune a million times, but never quite like that. He’s an incredible all-around player.

All these records were very good. It’s a reality these days that it is harder to tell guys apart trumpetistically, because we all study out of the same books, and there’s a certain trumpetistic artistry that’s prevalent these days. So it’s harder to pick people apart, but that’s overshadowed by the musicianship on all these records, which was really excellent. That’s always my answer to the problem these days, when guys say, “Ah, too many guys sound alike.” I say the musicianship is so high it doesn’t matter.

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Dr. Lonnie Smith is 69

As reviews of Dr. Lonnie Smith’s recent engagement at Ronnie Scott’s in London make clear, the Hammond B3 master, who turned 69 today, remains an American original, as cliche-free in his attire as when expressing himself through notes and tones. After listening to him for years, I had the opportunity to learn this first-hand when I profiled Smith for DownBeat four or five years ago. Hopefully we’ll have a chance to experience his magic for many years to come.

* * * * *

“I don’t do soundchecks,” Doctor Lonnie Smith noted as he entered Manhattan’s Jazz Standard ninety minutes before hit-time on night one of his pre-Christmas week. It was cocktail hour, and stragglers from a private party ambled leisurely from the room with doggie bags filled with barbecued ribs and chicken. Smith, however, was ready to attend to business. So were his bandmates, an as-yet unrehearsed quintet billed as Crescent Boogaloo for the presence of New Orleanians Donald Harrison and Nicholas Payton, along with Peter Bernstein, a Manhattan native, and Bill Stewart, a son of Iowa.

Smith’s white hair was tied back in a bun. His white beard was combed out. His black rasta hat sat at a precise angle over his forehead. With the help of his trademark conjure cane, he picked his way to the bandstand to gauge the idiosyncracies of the house-owned Hammond B3. As the staff moved tables and chairs into position, Smith proceeded to poke and prod as Harrison and Payton, both in town just that afternoon, warmed up with licks and long tones. Bernstein tweaked his amp, Stewart tuned his drums and adjusted his cymbals. Smith set forth the chords for Tadd Dameron’s “Good Bait,” Stewart went four-to-the-floor, and Smith, already grooving, eyes darting, played an intense solo, harmonizing his line in a fervent grunt. Harrison blew a half chorus. So did Payton.  Satisfied, Smith smiled, halted the proceedings, chatted briefly with the house engineer, and left the room.

Forty-five minutes later, barbecue-munching, spirits-sipping patrons packed the house. Smith reemerged, now topped with his trademark black turban. Again, he kicked off “Good Bait,” embellishing the melody with a funky bassline not unlike the one he’d laid down forty years before on “Alligator Boogaloo,” the still-popular Lou Donaldson jukebox hit on which Smith generated the grooves with George Benson and Idris Muhammad. As Harrison uncorked a darting solo, Smith shifted the drawbars with his right hand without allowing the bass to flag, then segued into a characteristically dramatic solo that built to climax and decrescendo. Without a word, he launched the theme of Frank Foster’s “Simone,” simultaneously floating the melody and articulating another inexorably raunchy bassline over Stewart’s staunch 5/4. As his solo transpired, he tilted his head almost at a right angle to the Leslie speaker behind him, extracting signifying squawks and fuzz. Over Stewart’s declarative swamp beat on the Beatles’ “Come Together,” Smith continued to jab-and-weave atop another ferocious bass figure, juxtaposing long runs with short bursts, then gave way to Harrison’s intense wailing-the-blues alto solo and Payton’s low-register effusion, nodding like a pendulum as he comped, growling scat syllables to conclude.

It was time to cool down the inflamed congregants, and Smith ratcheted down with an abstract, rubato fanfare at a subtone murmur, gradually transitioning to an exposition of the elegiac theme of “Chelsea Bridge.” Supporting nuanced solos by Payton and Harrison, Smith turned the organ into a virtual choir, which, on his own concluding statement, blasted off the firmament and into ether. On the intro to “Willow Weep For Me,” he continued to orchestrate, interpolating fragments of “Parisian Thoroughfare” and “Rhapsody in Blue,” and splattering synth-like Sun Ra platters of color, sustaining a slow drone to complement Bernstein’s melody statement and Payton’s brief melodic variations. On his own solo, he postulated a long, swaying bassline, picking each note with care. Gradually, he raised the tempo, harmonizing the line and locking in, eyes closed, before unwinding with a slow blues over a shuffle. On the brisk set-closer, “Oleo,” Smith spun out crisply articulated bop lines, prodding an informed succession of solos with stabbing, Bud Powell-like comp.

The house began to clear for the second, sold-out show. Smith—who seemed barely to have broken a sweat while spontaneously conjuring a perfect set from, as it were, a blank canvas—exchanged a pleasantry or two with fans and friends, and retreated to the bar for dinner.

[BREAK]

At 65, Smith occupies a singular niche in 21st century improvisation. Along with less visible B3′ers such as Gene Ludwig and Gloria Coleman, he’s one of the last survivors to have lived and breathed his instrument’s down-home, good-time function that provided a foot-patting  soundtrack at blue-collar inner city lounges and grilles across urban Afro-America until the era of Ronald Reagan. Deejays and producers still sample the famously funky grooves of such early career albums as Alligator Boogaloo, Mama Wailer, a Kudu session from 1974, or Afro-Desia, a 1975 Groove Merchant date on which Joe Lovano debuted as a sideman. Smith himself never stopped sidemanning with Donaldson, and spent much of the ‘90s offering omnidirectional testimony in bracing contrast to the leader’s straight-down-the-middle declamations. These days he performs mostly as a leader, still building full-bodied basslines from the bottom up. He also continues to deploy the presentational style that he developed early on, projecting earthy roots while developing ever more sophisticated ways to satisfy a hunger to embrace a universe of sound, an imperative that also drove the jazz fusion avatars of his generation, psychedelic mother-shippers like George Clinton and Bootsy Collins, or, for that matter, Sun Ra.

“He’s the king of nuance,” said Harrison between sets. “Lonnie can switch so quickly from one feeling to another; he’s figured out how to do it.”

“He uses a lot more harmony than he used to,” said Joey DeFrancesco, whose father, a Niagara Falls native, crossed paths with Smith on the early ‘60s Buffalo scene, where both soaked up local hero Joe Madison. “But no matter what he does, his bass always grooves, so it’s swinging, and he comes up with a lot of different sounds. He’s got the whole thing going.”

Few musicians have played more frequently with Smith than Bernstein, his bandmate with Donaldson since the early ‘90s, who often plays guitar in Smith’s trios. “Lonnie trusts his instincts like nobody else that I play with,” Bernstein said. “He’s totally unafraid to stop on a dime, change the direction of the music, and see what happens. He sings, and on one level, that’s his approach to playing the instrument. On the other level, he is the orchestra accompanying the singer, accompanying himself. He gets inside the tune, melts it down, then brings it into a form. He’ll try anything”

Organist Sam Yahel experienced Smith’s experimental proclivities first-hand during the early ‘90s when he loaned Smith his Korg CX-3 portable organ for a gig at Augie’s, then a hardcore jazz haven on the Upper West Side and now the premises of Smoke.

“I’d been gigging all over the city with it, and thought I had it figured out,” Yahel said. “But after I set it up for Lonnie, I was blown away by the sounds he got out of this thing. He’s one of the first guys I heard who expanded the sonic palette. From “Alligator Boogaloo,” I perceived him as this amazing player in the tradition of Jimmy Smith, which he is. But when I heard him live, I understood that he was bringing something else to the table—a capacity for abstraction. He pulled out sounds that we didn’t realize were there. When I heard him on the real organ, I was even more blown away by his ability to come from an abstract place, and then reach that place of soulfulness. Unlike Larry Young, who freed up the harmony and lyricism of the right hand by freeing up the left hand so that the bass didn’t always have to nail the groove, but could float, come behind or a little ahead, Lonnie never sacrificed the idea that the bass is ALWAYS incredibly grooving. Indirectly or directly, he influenced my generation. When you hear him play an introduction, you feel that anything could happen. Your creative juices can’t help but flow when you walk away.”

“Lonnie approaches his solos thematically, and is a very thoughtful improviser,” said Larry Goldings, who witnessed the aforementioned night at Augie’s. “Now, he has a bunch of very personalized sounds—organ effects—that I still can’t figure out and copy. But more important is the way he builds the solo, with a lot of space and tremendous drama. In a way, that’s mostly what he’s about. He wants to tell a story, and he knows how to get the audience on the edge of their seat. By the end you really feel like you’ve been through something.”

[BREAK]

“The first night was very hard,” Smith reported a week later. “But I had faith because they were great players. What made it hard is that you have to make sure all the equipment is working right, and their organ was a little rough for me. But once you start playing, it’s okay—you figure out what to do with it.”

“Figuring out what to do with it” has been Smith’s modus operandi from the jump, and the dictum served him well around 1961, when he returned to Buffalo from an undistinguished Air Force stint in Texas as an electronics specialist (“I didn’t want to take orders from anybody, so they discharged me”), and started singing with his brothers on local jobs.

“I always sang,” he recalled. “My family sang spiritual music at home, and before I went into the service, I’d sung in churches. Then, we had a four-part harmony singing group called the Supremes, which we changed to the Teen Kings. A disk jockey named Lucky Pierre managed us, and we made a record. But also, I always loved to play musical instruments. The first time I touched a piano, I’d just graduated to third grade, and I went to visit my aunt. No one was watching me, and I got up to the piano and figured out how to play ‘Crying in the Chapel.’ I still remember the key—F-sharp.

“I never had a piano, but I learned a little about the keyboard by fooling around. I knew some boogie-woogie, and natural things like that. My mother and I used to scat to instrumental songs, and I played trumpet and tuba in high school, but I’d play piano in the school auditorium, or at someone’s house, like Grover Washington, who I grew up with. I’d play songs by Fats Domino or Little Richard—what they played had a lot of feeling, and wasn’t so complex that you couldn’t understand what they were doing; once you listened to the record, you said, ‘Oh, okay,’ and you’d have it. A friend played me Jimmy Smith’s ‘Midnight Special’ record, and I heard Wild Bill Davis, Bill Doggett and Milt Buckner, too. My brothers played bass, guitar and drums, and on the jobs, I’d sing a few songs, then sit on the side while they kept playing. I wanted to get up there so bad! It looked like were having too much fun. I borrowed a Wurlitzer. I’d play a couple of songs, and I’d be happy.”

Obsessed with the keyboard, Smith began spending most of his down time at a downtown music store owned by a generous soul named Art Kubera. “He asked me why, and I said, ‘Sir, if I had an instrument, I could work, I could make a living,’” Smith recounted. “It must have stuck. One day, I came in, and he closed up, took me in the back, where he stayed, and showed me a new Hammond he’d had to take back. They were in the thousands then. He said, ‘If you can move it, it’s yours.’ I got a pickup truck, and moved it.”

While learning the complex sequence of stops and presets that generates the Hammond sound, Smith played the house keyboard at a local boite called the Little Paris. One night, Jack McDuff, in town for an engagement at Buffalo’s top jazz venue, the Pine Grill, came by when the place was packed. “McDuff told me he was standing on one side of the room, and the people were jumping so much that the vibrations from the floor moved him to the other side,” Smith said. “He’d heard I had an organ, and wanted to rent it—a friend of his was coming to town. I wasn’t sure, but he said, ‘One day maybe I’ll be able to help you.’ Guess who the friend was. Lou Donaldson.”

In 1964, McDuff fulfilled this karmic promise, allowing Smith—now booked out of Ohio, he had gainful employment backing acts like Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, the Coasters, and the Impressions, Etta James, and Jimmy Reed—to sit in with his popular George Benson-Red Holloway-Joe Dukes quartet on a Buffalo gig. About to branch off on his own, Benson liked Smith’s groove. He took his number, but didn’t call.

“I’d been playing in New York City at Smalls, and Grant Green was trying to get me to record with him,” Smith stated. “But I’d heard Grant Green on records, I’d just started playing, and I knew I wasn’t ready.” Green’s manager, Jimmy Boyd, was also working with Benson, and had Smith’s number. “They were playing in Pittsburgh, and needed another organist, and Jimmy said, ‘I know just who to get.’ George said, ‘That’s who I was looking for.’ I gave my group two-week notice, and my last gig was in Buffalo. George came to get me that night, and we went to his mom’s house in Pittsburgh, learned two songs in his basement, and took off for New York.”

First, they entered the 845 Club in the Bronx. The owner then booked them to follow Grant Green at his Harlem club, the Palm Café, on 125th Street, down the block from the Apollo. An extended run at Minton’s Playhouse followed.

“The Palm Café had go-go dancers, and George and I would sing duets,” Smith recalled. “James Brown was at the Apollo, and he came down every night, jumped up on the organ and said, ‘don’t you move; you stay right there.’ Esther Phillips would play a bit of organ, too; I’d stay there and they’d tickle the top. James Brown wanted us to go with him, but we just kept on our route, which was the correct thing to do. John Hammond heard about us, and he came by and signed us to Columbia Records. The rest was history.”

[BREAK]

“I was a rebel when I was younger,” Smith said. “I never liked the business of music. When I didn’t want to be bothered, I’d go somewhere and hide.”

A Harlem resident since the ‘60s, Smith sold ample units for Columbia, Blue Note and CTI, and he made it his business to reach out to his fan base, criss-crossing the highways with his Hammond in tow. Sometimes he made long pit stops—six months in Milwaukee in the late ‘70s, and several extended ‘80s residences around Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Still a road warrior at 65, he remarks that although he would prefer to work several months a year, and as little as possible in the winter, it would be very difficult to scale back and retain the lifestyle to which he is accustomed.

Smith’s rebellious proclivities extended to the aesthetic realm of repertoire and interpretation. “Before I started playing with George, I was into the kind of music John Coltrane and Miles Davis were playing, and I was crazy about McCoy Tyner and Ahmad Jamal, Thelonious Monk and Erroll Garner,” he said. “I love classical music and the different sounds of the instruments. I wrote a song called “I Be Blue” that I recorded with Lou Donaldson. I wrote it thinking of Lady Day, this beautiful melody with this ugly sound grinding up underneath the chords, like seeing yourself threading through thick water. I was doing this years ago, but it was too early.

“When I left George, I went through a period of playing completely free-form music, which was too out for the people. I didn’t care at that time. I had a hit record, and I’d play something they hadn’t heard. As the years passed, I started tuning in on the people more. Those are the people who are with you. The young people buy my music today because I stopped and listened.”

The young people also respond to Smith’s expressive face, his headgear, his honorific—in short, his showmanship. The term, by the way, makes him bristle. Nor does he care to comment on “Doctor” and the turban.

“When I get up there, you might see showmanship,” Smith remarked. “I’m not even thinking about it because I’m really shy. But when I play, a lot of those things come out because I want people to feel loose and enjoy themselves. If you don’t draw anybody, you’re not coming back. See, we used to have dancers and comedians—a show. Young people don’t know what we did to keep this music going. Do you think I make faces to be making faces? No! I can’t stand it; they’re always taking pictures of me making faces.

“I have so much passion. I had an algebra teacher who got real involved, and would shout, ‘Yeah, that’s it!’ and start writing out the answer. That’s how I feel when I’m playing, so enthused and so happy. I’m pleasing myself first, and you’re next. The Hammond has such a warm sound—the feel of the earth, the sun, the moon, the water—and it matches so well with the Leslie. The horn that goes around inside the Leslie moves slow and fast—when you close the switch on it, it’s like a nasal type sound; when you open the switch, it’s like the earth opened, or someone who’d been stopped up with a cold and everything opens up, or when you let caged birds go free and they fly everywhere. Later, I’m out of breath, I don’t want to talk, I don’t want to do nothin’, I just want to go home and relax. It’s so pleasant—unless somebody really pisses you off on the stage. Sure, sometimes people you play with don’t match too good. But 99% of the time I’m having a ball.”

Pressed on the issue, Smith mentioned that he started turbaning-up during his teens, and that “‘doctor’ was given to me because I was doctoring up my music.” He paused. “I know you were trying to get to it. You got it.

“If you remember, Sun Ra had a miner’s cap, and Sonny Rollins had the Mohawk hairdo. But I’m a doctor of music, I’ve been playing long enough to operate on it, and I do have a degree, and I will operate on you. I’m a neurosurgeon. If you need something done to you, I can do it. But when I go up on that stand, the only thing I’m thinking of is music. And I’m thinking to touch you with that music. I don’t think about the turban, I don’t think about the doctor—I just think about I’m going to touch you.”

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