Dear Louis, Nicholas Payton's much-anticipated fifth record for Verve, is a breakthrough album on which Payton channels the essence of Louis Armstrong's music with a wholly contemporary sensibility.
With an 11-piece ensemble, guest vocalists Dr. John and Dianne Reeves, legendary organist Melvin Rhyne, and bassist Walter Payton (Nicholas' father), the 27-year-old trumpeter reinvents 12 iconic tunes that span a 40-year chunk of Armstrong's career. In the centennial period marking Armstrong's birth (although Satchmo was fond of saying he was born on July 4, 1900, his birthdate is recorded as August 4, 1901), Payton pays homage to the trumpet legend.
"On Dear Louis I wanted to evoke Armstrong's spirit and give listeners a view of what I am about compositionally," says Payton. "Using a lot of instruments gives me a broader range of colors to draw from and enables me to better express myself texturally." Yes, he projects the signature immense, thrilling, Armstrong-esque tone, warm and enveloping through the full range of the trumpet, a tone that by now is recognized around the world. But rather than indulge in a tradition-fest, Payton frames his lyric conception with arrangements that reflect a decidedly modernist vision, deploying a capacious palette of harmonic color and an unerring grasp of groove.
Payton, a lifelong son of the Crescent City who grew up in the Treme district, across from Louis Armstrong Park, says, "This is an extension of my Gumbo Nouveau record from a few years ago, where I took a lot of New Orleans classics--many of which happen to be songs that Armstrong performed--and used both the traditional and more modern elements of New Orleans music, as well as things outside the realm of New Orleans which have influenced me musically." Among those, Payton cites the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Gil Evans' collaborations with Miles Davis, and the Brazilian master Hermeto Pascoal, among others. The African, American Indian, European classical, blues, and spiritual elements inherent in New Orleans music are also crucial to the pan-diasporic conception of rhythmic possibility with which he reinterprets Armstrong's music.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the Dear Louis project was selecting material. "I could have done five CDs!" Payton exclaims. "Armstrong did so many great tunes. I tried to represent as many periods and aspects of his musicianship as I could, from the fun and lighthearted to the deep and complex."
He doesn't disappoint. Payton imparts an elegant reharmonization and ferocious swing to the stirring set opener "Potato-Head Blues." Consider the way he flows in and out of rhythmic signatures in his treatment of "Tight Like This," which in its original incarnation was a sort of novelty tune made transcendent by Armstrong's magisterial solo. Using Armstrong's intro, Payton elongates the phrases, treating the theme like a ballad. After a drum solo, the band plays the reharmonized melody, which builds to a surging Latin section propelled by bass-tuba ostinatos over which Payton enters most urgently. Or note how he blends percussionist Kenyatta Simon's nuanced treatment of the conga, djembe, agogo bells, and cuica into the fabric of his panoramic orchestration of "Hello Dolly." "Tiger Rag" and "[I'll Be Glad When You're Dead] You Rascal You" pulse with Second Line vigor. In the flagwaving finale, "West End Blues," Payton's uncannily idiomatic restatement of Armstrong's clarion introduction hits a booty-shaking shuffle featuring Melvin Rhyne.
Vocally, Armstrong's accomplishments were as significant as his trumpet playing, and those achievements are recognized on Dear Louis. Payton uses the viperous growl of Dr. John (Mac Rebennack) on a swinging "Mack the Knife." He contrasts "the nasty and the sweet" in a Rebennack-Dianne Reeves dialogue on "Blues in the Night," in which the pair alchemize a new take on the Louis Armstrong-Ella Fitzgerald chemistry. And in "On the Sunny Side of the Street," Reeves personalizes the chestnut with nonchalant mastery.
Payton makes his own vocal debut on this album with "You Rascal You" and "I'll Never Be the Same." When asked about his singing, Payton said, "I've been working on my voice in private for several years now. I'm just now starting to feel confident enough about my ability as a vocalist to record my singing. Plus, I think it's fun, and audiences seem to enjoy it. And as Pops [Armstrong] said, 'It's good for the chops.'"
Payton's elders have known about his ability to infuse classic jazz repertoire with idiomatic authority and life force since he was a teenage phenom in New Orleans. In 1996, the late, legendary trumpeter Adolphus "Doc" Cheatham, who subbed for Armstrong in a Chicago theatre orchestra in the 1920s and collaborated with Payton on a Grammy-winning recording, remarked, "Nicholas is the greatest of the New Orleans-style trumpet players that I've ever heard ... I haven't heard anybody like him since Louis." Similarly, New Orleans drummer Herlin Riley told Jazziz magazine, "I think the spirit of Louis Armstrong, Buddy Bolden, and those kind of people lives in Nicholas more than any other trumpet player from New Orleans. Nicholas was raised into a tradition. The sound of New Orleans traditional jazz was part of his upbringing. It wasn't something he had to reach back for; he took his roots and extended beyond."
Payton and the 11-piece band from Dear Louis have already been playing together for more than a year, and are booked throughout 2001 to perform the Armstrong oeuvre. "Since the recording, the music has blossomed," Payton enthuses. "I feel fortunate to have a group of musicians as talented as this, who are open-minded and challenge me every night." That spirit shines through on every beat of Dear Louis.