“I play post-modern New Orleans music,” says Nicholas Payton, trumpeter, composer, producer, social commentator, historian, and for the most part, an uncategorizable talent. His latest project, Afro-Caribbean Mixtape, is a heady stew of be-bop, swing, soul, rhythm and blues, and dozens of other musical influences, all with roots in the rhythms of Africa.
Afro-Caribbean Mixtape also is the title of his latest album, released in February. “I’ve incorporated elements from all the things I’ve written and spoken about for years,” Payton said of the 22-track, double disc album. “It speaks to the moment politically in an overt way that my other albums don’t.”
On May 19, the SCP Jazz Series presents the Grammy Award winner with his Afro-Caribbean Mixtape band, which consists of Braylon Lacy (bass), Joe Dyson (drums), Daniel Sadownick (percussion) and DJ Lady Fingaz (turntables). Payton performs not only on trumpet but also on Fender Rhodes, clavinet and Hammond B-3. Opening the concert is duo of saxophonist Steve Wilson and drummer Lewis Nash, performing both straight-ahead and free-jazz style selections.
Payton comes by music organically. The New Orleans native grew up across the street from Louis Armstrong Park in a home with an opera singer-pianist mother and a bassist-sousaphonist father. “Our house became a rehearsal space for whatever band my father was in,” Payton said.
His father presented him with a trumpet for Christmas when he was just 4 years old. “We had a big living room and a grand piano, and other instruments. Trumpet appealed to me most of all the instruments.”
Five years after receiving that first trumpet, he was playing alongside his father in the Young Tuxedo Brass Band. It wasn’t long before he was working regularly with the All-Star Brass Band, which was led by Trombone Shorty’s oldest brother, James Andrews. Growing up in multi-cultural New Orleans, Payton encountered all kinds of music, performing everything from R&B to hip-hop. “I played all sorts of music,” Payton said. “I did everything!”
Payton has been significantly influenced by all the greats who came before him, including Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong, To date, he has appeared on 130 recordings as a composer, arranger, special guest or sideman. “The real masters take the path of becoming a master by studying the masters, then shedding the skin of that master and moving on,” he said. “I’ve been through that process with a lot of different people.”
In 2012, Payton undertook one of his most ambitious projects thus far. On a commission from the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, he composed the Black American Symphony for full orchestra. The work sums up “the last hundred years of black American music,” he said, “and it suggests the possibilities of what is ahead for the next hundred years.”
Payton took a somewhat similar approach on “Afro-Caribbean Mixtape,” which brings together different musical worlds, eras and vibes. “On these two discs, I wanted to represent as much of the full spectrum of black music from the beginning to the continuity of forever,” he said. “On a conceptual level, I think it’s my greatest work thus far.”
Along with his roles as performer, bandleader, arranger and composer, Payton has also moved into the entrepreneurial realm by creating his own imprint, Paytone Records. To date, the label has released six albums, including “Afro-Caribbean Mixtape.” These albums, as well as “Afro-Caribbean Mixtape,” demonstrate Payton’s philosophy of approaching music in a circular rather than a linear movement through time and space. “An album is just a snapshot in time,” he said. “As it evolves, things open up because there’s already a reference. You can let go more. There’s trust in what you’re doing.”